Philip Pullman – The Amber Spyglass

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The Amber Spyglass is just as uneven as the previous entries. It’s uneven in different ways than the previous books, but I’m not sure whether if is a testament to Pullman’s skills. It could show a lack of learning. His main strength in showing ideas and not strawmanning the bad guys remains. His mechanical plotting that relies on a barely mentioned prophecy remains, too. Imagine if God texted Jonah once in a while to remind him he’s a prophet.

It’s good it ended here. The Amber Spyglass almost spins out of control, with some characters dropping out and others coming out of nowhere. The Mulefa race is pretty cool, but it’s ad hoc. It pops out of nowhere and exists mostly for Mary’s character arc. He did create an interesting and unique enough culture, and its exploration lines up with Mary’s character. On its own, it’s not bad. It reads like snippets from an even better novel, but here it’s out of place. Pullman’s connection to the rest of the story isn’t very convincing. Dust’s erratic behavior didn’t need a whole new world. Pantalaimon also might as well not be there. There are few comments from him. He used to be Lyra’s foil, but now he tends to change shape and that’s it.

Pullman characterizations also fails. Lyra remains subjugated to Will, and Will remains fairly uninteresting. The relationship between him and Lyra gives him a little more to do, namely act on what he wants, for selfish purposes, instead of going out to save the world because the Author(ity) said so. Mrs. Coulter stops being the villain, which is great, but her character’s shift is too extreme to be believable. Her motivation is not just because she loves Lyra, but also her conflict with the Church. This is only told about in a few dialogue lines, instead of being shown. If Pullman followed her more closely, and gave her a more focused character arc, he wouldn’t have lost focus on what really matters. Her big moment felt hollow. There’s also a bumbling assassin and the passages that narrate his adventures sound like Dan Brown. I could tell he was albino without that being described.

At least the battle field remains interesting. The Church are the villain, but they’re not bad because they’re bad. A few scenes lets us inside the Church, and instead of bad guys laughing evilly because they’re evil, we’re seeing people who are just (too) certain they’re rights. The battle field in The Amber Spyglass is not one where the good kind men fights the evil child murderer, but of two different worldviews. Our main heroes are also not part of any of the factions. They choose Asriel less because they agree with him. They choose because it’s better than the other. Pullman avoids making this about beating the enemy to death. It’s another example how good it is with violence. Perhaps, if he studied its history and made it the novel’s main theme the results were better.
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Somewhere near the end the battle is over and Pullman comes back to his philosophical ideas. The sections about the world of the dead are especially interesting, although the harpies’ role is a bit lost on me. I’m glad our heroes don’t defeat them using violence – most victories here aren’t won with that, thank God, but what is their connection to what Pullman is saying about death? His take on the afterlife is good. He views the afterlife as actually an undesirable thing, and looks at complete death, a person decomposing completely as something positive. It’s a more interesting discussion than whether life after death exist, but he didn’t connect the annoying harpies to this theme.

He also didn’t connect this whole prophecy thing. Prophecy is convenient, because it means that whatever our character thinks, feels, loves or drives he will do what must be done in the end. Prophecy doesn’t have to be like this. The reason a certain person is chosen can be meaningful and connect to the theme in the story. In Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, you are chosen because you’re an outlander. It’s not just chance. You being an outlander ties directly to the Dunmer’s xenophobia. Morrowind’s prophecy is also not obvious. There are a variety of different accounts, some false and some true. Morrowind uses the prophecy to explore what folklore means and the theme of xenophobia. Why were Lyra and Will chosen? There was nothing about them that made them special. Everyone kept insisting, but Pullman kept dragging Lyra down and lifting Will up slightly. Lyra briefly becomes interesting again by the end of the book. Will is also gone by then. That’s not a coincidence. She still wasn’t special enough to be chosen.

The the best display of the unevenness is how the big solution to the big problem sometimes made sense and sometimes didn’t. The it makes sense in the theme department, but not the plot department. It’s not clear how a small deed changes everything. Maybe it was the specialness, but see the above paragraph for that. The romance was also manipulative, but Pullman had little choice. The other way would have felt too convenient. Pullman wrote himself into a catch, and he barely got out.

Pullman stopped his car right before his crash. The Amber Spyglass can be hard to make sense of. Pullman gets his strengths and weaknesses mixed up, but the main focus was never lost. Even when it spins out of control, Pullman knows what are his themes and what is his purpose for writing. It didn’t prevent him from not exploring them enough, but it did help him keep his story exciting, fun and full of entertaining scenes even when their connection is not clear. It’s not a great ending, but it was worth the time.

3 wheels out of 5

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