Problematic, inconsistent and troubling on many levels, this book's saving grace is the depth of its emotional ending, which barely (and I mean barely) gives it value. Pullman indulges himself in the creation and proclamation of a religion he thinks the world should have and allows his characters to stray into utterly unbelievable territory and allows his plot to meander into ludicrously fantastic and open-ended fantasy with more plot holes than The Dark Knight Rises
. Worse yet, Pullman rounds out his portrayal of women in such an unflattering light (after such a strong start too!) that even as a guy, I ended the book thinking, "That's totally messed up." The Amber Spyglass
is so dramatically different from its predecessors, it's hard to imagine that they're from the same author at all.Spyglass
picks up immediately after the conclusion of [b:The Subtle Knife|119324|The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)|Philip Pullman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320482229s/119324.jpg|1570229] and attempts to do several things: reveal more about the prophecy concerning Lyra and the ultimate choice she'll have to make, reveal more about the Authority and the relationship between the various factions in the multiversal web created in the previous novels (including what the heck Dust is), and to redeem the characters thus far sullied in the course of the narrative. The novel begins with Will's search for Lyra and her rescue from the hands of the dastardly Mrs. Coulter and proceeds to set the stage for the ultimately difficult choices the pair will have to make to save all of creation. While some of the in-universe theological questions and factions are adequately explained, the resulting illumination casts a lot of ambiguity on the previous actions of characters, which in retrospect, begin to make no sense at all. (Think of the Master's attempted assassination of Asriel way back at the start of the series.) Where this particularly fails is with the main antagonists of the storyline thus far: Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. Pullman tries very, very hard to pull the crappy parenting and horrific acts of child abuse and murder on the part of both Lyra's parents into the realm of the morally ambiguous, if not the absolutely righteous and fails pretty spectacularly in my opinion. I felt nothing but anger at the attempted redemption of Lyra's parents; these two petty individuals cared more for their own ambition and lives than their own daughter, at times callously neglecting her or attempting to outright imprison her and deny her any form of independence, they discover a miraculous love for her that they "didn't know they had all along" that is completely inconsistent with the depth of their previous egotism and selfishness. The change is so abrupt and so suspicious that their virtuous behavior is held suspect in the mind of the reader and causes nothing short of outrage at their eventual self-righteous martyrdom.
Many reviewers have commented on the strength of Pullman's work being the grey area that he presents for the YA audience of his works - forcing them to see the world in its complicated shades rather than in the stark black-and-white typical in other child-oriented fantasy. Here, liars and murderers can be heroes, which, supposedly, can do wonders for the self-esteem and self-worth of young readers who would feel ashamed or unworthy holding up their imaginary mirrors to pure characters like the Pevensies or Clark Kent. While this may have been true in the first volume of the series, that view seems incredibly naive at the end - particularly when considering Pullman's attitude toward women. Lyra started out the central figure in the narrative; willful, independent, clever and assertive, she evolves (or devolves) into the typical subservient heroine typical of the Judeo-Christian narrative. She's easily terrified, submits her own desires to the man she loves, and is utterly incapable of proceeding without his help. What a disappointment. I think, in his head, Pullman thought that he was creating a relationship of equals in which both Will and Lyra would play an equally important role in the future of all creation, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. Even the choice that was originally supposed to be Lyra's, ends up being a joint decision that I don't think ultimately rests on her shoulders at all. When faced with the choice of returning to her universe to live out the rest of her life or to stay with Will in his for the brief time that she'll be able to survive there, her original decision (to stay with him) is subverted by Will's "rationality." Obviously neither could be happy knowing the other lived an abbreviated existence to spend 10 years with the other, so better to spend no more time together at all. And of course, realizing the "superiority" of intellect embodied in Will over the message of her heart, she concedes. And it doesn't just end with Lyra! Let's examine the other prominent women in the narrative shall we? We have a "temptress" figure who's supposed to threaten all of reality by giving Lyra a bad alternative embodied in Mary Malone, an otherwise competent, intelligent and successful female scientist, which seems to send the message that such a person is in someway improper, regardless of whatever conciliatory role she may play in the end. We have an absentee mother whose ambition drove her to abandon her daughter in the service of her own career and murder children for her own personal advancement and glory; a woman who uses her body and her guile to tempt and subvert men so she can get her way. There's also Mrs. Parry, who is so lost and forlorn without her husband that she slips into madness forcing her only child to fend for himself for the most part. Which really only leaves the witches represented mainly by Seraphina Pekkala as suitable role models for a young girl, in my opinion.Spyglass
really failed to live up to the promises of its predecessors and disappointed me on so many levels. The conclusion of the story does have an emotional resonance that is undeniable in spite of otherwise distracting developments that were either completely confusing or completely predictable (tell me you didn't see the recreation of the Garden of Eden scenario coming from the very beginning). Pullman's prose remains strong throughout, which is another saving grace and in spite of the saccharine nature of the ending, the narrative remains safely elevated above melodrama.
Like so many other reviewers, my advice to you is: read [b:The Golden Compass|119322|The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)|Philip Pullman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333617993s/119322.jpg|1536771] and stop. Yes there's a cliffhanger ending, but you're not going to be happy with the resolution. Let it live in your head and leave Lyra the formidable, precocious youth who upended dastardly plans that sacrificed children and returned peace and stability to the kingdom of the bears with nothing but guts and brains.