Book Review: The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)

Book Review: The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m honestly pretty blown away, and I can’t believe I waiting this long to read His Dark Materials. It was wonderful, balancing thought-provoking philosophy with nearly breakneck-speed action in this final installment. Pullman crafted a world, or should I say worlds, that I found captivating, and characters whom I grew to care about deeply. Many of these characters, especially Lyra and Will, have taken a little piece of my heart, and I believe they’ll reside there from now on. What a marvelous adventure.

“I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read.”

While reading this book, I did something fairly unusual for me: I kept having to write about my thoughts. Usually, I might take notes on my phone and compile them all after finishing the book, or simply take no notes at all and write a review with nothing but my final thoughts circling around in my head. I could do neither here. I had to actually write out my thoughts as they came to me, so I didn’t forget to address something that I felt was important or forget why that element felt important in the first place. Because I responded to this book so differently from most, my review is going to be a bit different, as well. The next four or five paragraphs are thoughts I had to write out while I was reading. I decided to leave them mostly in their raw form instead of polishing them up and trying to wrangle them into some kind of flow that made sense. Most of these observations and opinions are very religious in nature, as this trilogy hinges so strongly on both belief and Christian mythos, so remember that these are incredibly subjective leanings. Without further ado, here are those thoughts. If you tire of my rambling, feel free to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final views.

“I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are.”

The problem with the Church of Lyra’s world isn’t their belief or their faith, which I actually saw very little evidence in the series. The problem is that they wish to erase the gift of free will. God could have prevented the original Fall of man in the form of Eve’s choice and Adam’s decision to follow her example. But He didn’t, because one of the greatest gifts He gave us was the ability to make our own decisions through free will. Mankind has no right to revoke that right from future generations, because it’s not a right we bestowed on ourselves to begin with. Instead of taking away our ability to make our own decisions, God gave us another option: accepting the gift of salvation provided by His Son’s death and resurrection.

“All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.”

The theory of gaining absolution before the committing of a sin is one of the most disturbing concepts I’ve encountered. It flies in the face of God’s gift and His claim to judge us by our motivations even more than by our deeds. I know that this is a tenet that was once held by very radical sects of the Church, but it’s absolutely repugnant and theologically unsound. Which actually made it a perfect fit for the Church as portrayed by Pullman.

“I’m just trying to wake up – I’m so afraid of sleeping all my life and then dying – I want to wake up first. I wouldn’t care if it was just for an hour, as long as I was properly alive and awake…”

A number of the epigraphs in the book come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which would have seemed like an almost too obvious decision from Pullman if this weren’t so obviously inspired in large part by Milton’s work. And as Milton conveyed Lucifer more as an antihero than a villain, it was easy to guess which side Pullman would favor in his narrative. However, Pullman’s take was original enough to maintain a level of unpredictability often absent in stories that are so closely linked to a retelling.

“People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

The descriptions of the Mulefa and their world reminded me of Perelandra, a world visited by Ransom in Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The mood, the innocence, the vast difference between the sentient creatures and humankind, and the relationship one of the adult human characters develops with these unique creatures all hearkened back to Lewis’s Ransom, and his experiences. This was a welcome addition, and was a much needed change of pace in the midst of so much action and trauma throughout the rest of the book.

“What work do I have to do then?” said Will, but went on at once, “No, on second thought, don’t tell me. I shall decide what I do. If you say my work is fighting, or healing, or exploring, or whatever you might say, I’ll always be thinking about it. And if I do end up doing that, I’ll be resentful because it’ll feel as if I didn’t have a choice, and if I don’t do it, I’ll feel guilty because I should. Whatever I do, I will choose it, no one else.”

The spoiler that was thrown in my face when I was a child,

view spoiler here
namely that the two main protagonists kill God,
was vastly overstated by the person who delivered it. Yes, this event does occur, but I was expecting premeditated brutality, not the quiet, heartbreaking outcome of an act of kindness. The whole worldview of this trilogy, while different from my own, was not nearly as radical as I was led to believe. This is a story of growing up, of leaving childhood when all you want to do is cling to it, of choosing one dream from many and mourning as the other possibilities move from could-be to might-have-been. It’s about doing good when it would be so much easier to be selfish, and redeeming yourself when the decisions of your past had a hand in harming others. It’s about love and free will and that fact that being able to choose your own path is both blessing and curse. I believe all these things. Where I differ from Pullman is in my belief that God is near, that He respects your choices but cares deeply about you, while Pullman conveys a God who is distant, uncaring, and fallible. I very strongly disagree with this quote and others like it for pretty obvious reasons:

“The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake.”

Pullman and I couldn’t be more opposed on that statement. Did that difference make me love this book, and the trilogy in its entirety, any less? Absolutely not.

“When you choose one way out of many, all the ways you don’t take are snuffed out like candles, as if they’d never existed.”

I was honestly blown about by His Dark Materials. It is one of the richest, most lovingly crafted trilogies I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It is epic and heartbreaking and sweet and fierce, and I absolutely loved it. Both Lyra and Will, and many of their supporting cast, will always have a place in my heart. Especially Lyra. She is kind and brave and incredibly loving, and I think every little girl could use a role model like her. Each book somehow improved the volume that preceded it, and it’s a series that I believe will lend itself very well to rereadings. His Dark Materials is a modern classic of the fantasy genre for a reason, and it’s well worth your time.

You can purchase a boxed set of the entire series here, with free shipping worldwide!

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