Fiction Review

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Philip Pullman concludes his much-praised fantasy trilogy.

By Andrew Osmond     November 17, 2000

The Amber Spyglass concludes the much-praised fantasy trilogy begun in 1995's The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in Britain), and continued in The Subtle Knife (1997). Ostensibly marketed for children but more 'adult' than many of its genre peers, Pullman's sagacollectively known as 'His Dark Materials,' one of many allusions to Paradise Lostleft me with mixed feelings.

For all Pullman newcomers reading this, Golden Compass is one of the best fantasies of the last decade, a boldly visionary, hugely enjoyable story of the frozen North and a deserving winner of the English Carnegie Medal. The Subtle Knife was an intriguing but somewhat infuriating sequel, with many fine scenes but a definite sense of middle-book syndrome; there was too much scene-setting for a cataclysmic third installment, leaving this reader thinking mutinously that there had to be a darned good payoff. Well, the payoff is here and the results are more mixed than ever. At times, Amber Spyglass is splendid; at times, depressingly crude. It's a good book, and a great improvement over Knife, but its flaws and cracks are painfully obvious.

The story so far: Lyra, Pullman's world-hopping girl heroine, has been kidnapped by her beautiful and fearsome mother Mrs Coulter (Pullman's confessed favorite character). By now, the Church authorities know of the prophecy that Lyra is the child on whom 'all worlds depend,' and promptly send out their heavy-duty assassins. Meanwhile, Lyra is dreaming of an underworld of imprisoned ghostsonly, is it a dream? Meanwhile, Will Parry, a lad from our own world, is hurrying to her rescue, aided by a pair of clearly gay angels who might have hailed from a Clive Barker novel. Another rep from our world is Doctor Mary Malone, whose researches into Dark Matter have led her to an Eden in danger of dissolution. And let's not forget Lyra's dad, the wonderfully hubristic Lord Asriel, preparing his final assault on the Kingdom of Heaven. (I did mention Milton?)

In short, Spyglass is a Big Hairy Epic; as such it's often great fun. It's certainly a book for anyone who relishes universe-rending battles between (deep breath) warrior angels, armored polar bears, flying witches, undead ghosts, zeppelins and 'gyropters,' and pint-sized humanoids whose taste in footwear is plainly inspired by Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. There's also a great description of Lord Asriel's armory, forging weapons to kill a deity, with hammers the size of houses and rivers of molten metal hidden in the depths of a mountain. The cast is large, but Pullman is careful to develop his main quartetLyra, Will, Asriel and Mrs Coulterwith Coulter in particular left admirably ambiguous until her final scene, where she makes a typically perverse declaration of true love. (Ah, but to whom?) And of course, there are plenty of painful choices and grueling trials, and the emotional turnabouts in the last hundred pages are skillfully done.

Fantasy fans will enjoy such scenes as the Metatron, official Voice of God, dive-bombing Will and his party early on. (In this and other scenes, I couldn't resist picturing him as surly Alan Rickman in Kevin Smith's Dogma). The underworld journey is a fantasy staple, but Pullman's vision has the simplicity and invention of an oral folktale, with the clever touch of each person's 'death' being personified as a second self. Other aspects of Pullman's underworld seem inspired by the climax of Ursula Le Guin's Farthest Shore (the third 'Earthsea' book), but then again Pullman confesses to 'stealing ideas from every book I read,' and the themes blend well.

But for all these assets, Spyglass is clumsy. Of course, the end of any epic series involves a fair amount of bagginess, as the author strives to tie up threads. Yet Spyglass feels more awkward than most. In particular, it suffers in comparison to the clear driving narrative of Golden Compass. There is, perhaps inevitably, repetition: we have already had plenty of offbeat battles and soul-destroying realms in the earlier books. Two new and interesting characters are set up in the first 150 pages, then suddenly vanish in the same scene (one returns at the end, but it's still annoying). Other scenes feel badly integrated, especially an episode with a quantum bomb, which allows for fireworks but adds little to the story.

There's also an occasional sense of anticlimax. The voyage into the underworld is gripping and our heroes suitably traumatized, but the way out feels too easy given the build-up. More disappointing is the final angelic battle, which takes placeof courseover a bottomless abyss. Without giving too much away, it relies on the most powerful intellect in the universe being bamboozled by a transparent human ploy. Not quite, 'Now, if you can just step toward this hole...' but pretty close.

As most readers of Subtle Knife guessed, Pullman's aim is avowedly heretical, to denounce religion and rewrite the Fall as humanity's triumph. It's a powerful, provocative theme. Unfortunately, Pullman doesn't handle it very well. As other critics have noted, the books rest on a straw-man argument. Religion, we are repeatedly told, can only equate to cruelty and repression, and every moral and spiritual advance comes from science and secular humanism. There's no qualification or refinement, and Pullman's 'serious' message, while earnest, feels fatuous and cartoony. (Remember Star Trek 5?) It's no surprise the Church heavies are the most lazily written, one-dimensional characters in Pullman's multiverse.

In interviews and articles, Pullman has repeatedly expressed his disgust for the 'Narnia' Christian fantasies by CS Lewis, with their cruelty, racism, and misogyny. I was hoping to glimpse a caricatured Aslan in Spyglass; Pullman doesn't go that far, but he does make the link between salvation and the children's emergent sexuality, which can be read as payback for the way Lewis treats Susan in the 'Narnia' stories. This and other points are valid, but this atheist reviewer is still forced to conclude that Spyglass is often more preachy, contrived and dishonest than the books it attacks. By accident or design, the 'Eden planet' strand in Spyglass has numerous parallels with Out of the Silent Planet, the first of Lewis' Space trilogy, superior both to 'Narnia' and its heretic rival.

The last paragraphs may suggest I come to bury Spyglass, not to praise it. Nothing of the sort. It's a must-read for anyone who loved Golden Compass (and if not, why not?) or who wants reassurance that children's fantasy hasn't been swallowed wholesale by Harry Potter. As a would-be classic, however, Amber Spyglass is a miss.


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