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Mon, Jan. 16th, 2006, 11:49 pm
Reading List: The Amber Spyglass

Read: The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman.

While the final installment in the His Dark Materials trilogy doesn’t quite rise to the genius of the first, it’s pretty damn close in most places. Pullman manages to resolve his plot (with an entirely appropriate number of deus ex machini, considering his subject matter), provide his characters with even more heartbreaking challenges, and give us his take on The Big Questions all at the same time. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say much about the book without giving away spoilers, either for this or for previous books, so I’ll simply suggest you pay close attention to the Deaths (wonderful!), to the scene between Lyra and Pantalaimon on the dock, to the way that Pullman handles the battle at the hydroelectric dam, to Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s last conversation, and to Mary Malone’s story at the very end of the novel. All are wonderful moments of character-driven but dramatic storytelling which are among my favorite in the series.

That’s not saying that The Amber Spyglass doesn’t have flaws, of course. For one thing, Pullman introduces a whole bunch of new world and/or plot elements (like Gallivespians, tiny swashbuckling spies) that don’t quite fit as well as some of his other inventions. When inventing Lyra’s world, he did a brilliant job, but in this novel he’s inventing many worlds and it’s clear that few of the others received the same kind of attention and love. Much of the action takes place in Lyra’s world, more or less, but other worlds do feature and aren’t quite as well-drawn. The world of the mulefa, for example, feels like something pulled out of Sheri Tepper in its heavy-handed eco-utopia, even though some of the book’s most important scenes take place there.

Similarly, some people (though I’m not one of them!) may feel that a major character change which happens to one of the major characters is not quite supported or convincing. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know which character I mean; it’s the one who “lies with their whole life.” I totally buy the transformation, but your mileage may vary.

On the other hand, the book does an absolutely genius job of creating conflicts that are not at all like traditional fantasy conflicts. Violence is sometimes necessary, but is rarely the solution. Love and sacrifice and courage and determination are far more important, and the conflicts themselves embody these values and choices that have to be made between them. What are the varieties and anatomies of love, and how do we make our choices based on that love? Romantic love, familial love, love of justice, love of self, love of freedom, and lack of any kind of love at all - all these things are explored, and not always with the characters (or resolutions) that you’d expect.

Overall, a fitting conclusion to a brilliant series. Highly recommended, and please do let me know if you end up loving it as much as I did!