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The Amber Spyglass by Philip PullmanUK edition4 stars

Buy from IndieBoundA bravura trilogy deserves a bravura finish. The Amber Spyglass concludes Philip Pullman’s challenging and polarizing His Dark Materials by delivering just such showmanship for most of its length, before finally dialing down the spectacle at the very end and becoming an intensely personal story of love and loss and sacrifice for the greater good on the part of its adolescent heroes, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. To some readers, this was a serious disappointment. Perhaps they were all worked up to expect the epic fantasy cliché du jour of a final-chapter winner-take-all boss battle. 

But I think what Pullman actually does deliver pays off in both fulfilling his themes (the dignity of the individual; freedom of conscience and inquiry; freedom from dogma and tyranny; the irreplacability of love and family) and giving his readers an almost gut-wrenchingly powerful emotional connection to his characters. There are scenes here that are breathtakingly heroic and heartbreaking at the same time, at all times avoiding cheap sentiment or mawkishness. Yes, some of you may think Pullman pours it on thick with the burgeoning love between Lyra and Will that figures so strongly in the saga’s climax. But I found it all touching, bless my cold black heart, a truthful and deeply warm-hearted portrayal of the kind of all-conquering slove that only young first love can be. Only when you’re at the cusp of adulthood do you really believe you’ll love someone forever, and it’s a feeling of innocent bliss most of us spend our lives trying to recover. 

It may go on a bit long in the end, but The Amber Spyglass is a powerful tale with much to say, and one that will linger in the mind and heart as all great stories do. Of course, if you’re a hardcore Christian, this book will seem to slither directly from the devil’s rectum. 

Of the three volumes, this one is the most overt in its religious critique. To call the book “anti-Christian” is reactionary, though, in that it is the dogma and the institution of religion, and not the people — who are always shown as possessing the strength to emancipate themselves from doctrine’s shackles and embrace reason if they choose to — towards which Pullman directs his rebuke. (Naturally, the clergy and agents of the Magisterium Church are pretty irredeemably evil, but the story’s got to get its villains somewhere.) Believers will likely not care about the distinction. Repudiating someone’s religion always makes them feel deeply resentful and personally devalued. And when Pullman has Mary Malone, the physicist and former nun whom Lyra met in The Subtle Knife, come right out and say, “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all,” that’s likely to be all that religious readers need to rest their case against the trilogy as Evil Atheist Agitprop out to poison impressionable minds. 

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I’m in Pullman’s camp, philosophically speaking. But I’ve often found much to enjoy in fantasy that’s espoused Christian themes, even where I’m critical of many of those themes. There’s a lot that I find ugly and bleak and misanthropic about C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, but there’s a great deal of vivid imagination and exciting talespinning going on when the series is on form. The archetypal notions of good and evil that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings turned into modern epic fantasy boilerplate stem directly from its author’s religious convictions. I enjoy being challenged by fiction that tries presenting me with points of view and themes that don’t simply flatter my preconceptions and established worldview. But when you don’t have an inviolable creed to defend, I suppose you’re less likely to fear that exposure to a work of fiction will bring the whole thing tumbling down.

The plot in brief: Lord Asriel has discovered that the Authority, the angelic being who has assumed the role of God, is no longer in control, its rule having almost entirely been given over to its regent, Metatron. Metatron is a much more proactive tyrant, seeking absolute control over humanity’s exploits in all the myriad universes. Thus Asriel’s war takes on a new urgency, especially when the Magisterium sends an assassin after Lyra in order to prevent her fulfilling the prophecy that will bring the Authority’s authority crashing down. But Lyra is willful as ever, and won’t go readily to the father she mistrusts. With Will’s help, she determines to make her way to the land of the dead, the plane of pure limbo where all the souls of the departed go, in order to rescue her dear friend Roger and, if possible, all the rest of the ghosts into the bargain. To get there, Lyra must make an agonizing sacrifice, in one of the series’ most heart-rending scenes. And while this is going on, Mary Malone wanders the plains of a world in yet another universe, inhabited by odd sentient creatures who cleverly use seedpods from trees they cultivate as wheels to roll around the landscape on. Mary makes an alarming discovery about what is happening to the life-giving Dust that connects all the universes. And what must be done to stop Dust from ceasing to exist completely will place an even more painful burden on the shoulders of Lyra and Will. 

What is most interesting about The Amber Spyglass is Pullman’s determination to avoid putting into easily defined black-hat/white-hat camps those characters who would seem the most obvious choices for such roles. Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is leading the rebellion against God (depicted as a creature of such decrepitude and irrelevance that when Lyra and Will encounter him abandoned on the field of battle, they just feel pity), is portrayed as an arrogant leader who has allowed the importance of his goals to morph into pure hubris. It’s only when he realizes the centrality of the role Lyra is to play that he becomes a bit more benign and respectful towards the headstrong daughter he has mostly disdained. Lyra’s other parent, the Machievellian Mrs. Coulter, has meanwhile shaken off her villainess role and become a staunch ally, though one who will never have the chance to be a true mother to Lyra. It’s fitting that both Asriel’s and Mrs. Coulter’s destinies are intertwined, and it’s a scene of both pounding suspense and redemptive triumph. 

Indeed, Pullman’s whole trilogy ends on a triumphant note. It is perhaps inevitable, and too bad, that readers too sensitive to criticisms of the Christian faith will not be in a position to admire the book for its storytelling strengths and, yes, its humanist message. Ultimately where His Dark Materials leads us is to the realization that our salvation lies in our love for one another and our willingness to make our universe, the only universe we know, the best it can be for everyone in it. A Republic, and not a Kingdom of Heaven, here on earth for one and all. Sure, Lyra and Will’s solutions, presented within a fantasy framework, aren’t exactly within our grasp. For Pullman’s characters to achieve their post-theistic apotheosis, they literally must eradicate death itself, ridding humanity of the primary existential fear that still allows religion its strongest means of control. 

But considering the trilogy’s themes at the more practical (yet still remarkable) levels of what people really have achieved, is it really such an ignoble goal to place faith in ourselves over faith in the unseen? To me, it seems like the best of all possible universes. Maybe it could never be completely perfect, but it would be one people worked for, fought for, and earned, and loved all the more for it.

Followed in 2017 by La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in a sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust.