Review Revisited: Philip Pullman – The Amber Spyglass
Length: 520 pages
Genre: Young-Adult Fantasy
Started: 26 March 2006 / 31 January 2009
Finished: 10 April 2006 / 15 February 2009
Summary: Lyra is held in a captive sleep by Mrs. Coulter, and Will must use all of his courage and cunning, as well as the knife that can cut between worlds to save her. Mary Malone has escaped from the Oxford police into a strange new world that will teach her more about Dust than her scientific researches ever could. Meanwhile, powerful forces are marshaling on either side of the battle lines of Lord Asriel’s war against the Authority – angels, witches, armored bears, several branches of the Church, and other sentient beings from a variety of worlds are all racing to find Lyra – for with her goes the fate of the world.
Original Review: A lot going on in this book, none of it typical kiddie-lit fare. Really interesting cosmology/theology, too, although there were one or two details that were a little muddled/underexplained. But the cosmology is not what gives this book (this series, really) its power. I don’t know if it was the writing or if it was the performances on the audiobook (probably both – I’d have to read it on paper to find out, but the performances are uniformly excellent), but this book (series) grabbed my emotions and didn’t let go. In the same way that the first book made me hold my breath from suspense, this one absolutely took my breath away from heartbreak and actually made me cry – not once, but at least twice. It’s a rare book that has the power to do that, and combined with the imaginative and original plot, the self-consistency of the cosmology (not always present in scifi/fantasy), and the sweet, funny, moving, and honest writing, this series is not to be missed. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Thoughts on a re-read: Well, it turns out that it was (mostly) the audiobook that made me cry. Mostly. I don’t know if it’s because I read much faster than I listen, and audiobooks force me to linger over the sad moments, or the actors for the audiobook of the His Dark Materials trilogy were just that good, or what, but on a re-read, this book didn’t make me cry nearly as hard as it did the first time around. We’re talking big ol’ racking sobs the first time around, versus a little bit more sniffly than can be accounted for by allergies alone this time. Maybe it’s just that I knew what was coming.
I’m also really, really still impressed with the texture and complexity of the worldbuilding. Pullman puts together history, physics, religious theory, evolution, anthropology, and probably several other fields of study into a single cohesive unit that’s so well built that it actually seems not only plausible, but likely. If someone where to tell me that hey, this isn’t just a fantasy novel; Dust is real, and this is really how the universe works… well, I don’t think I’d be particularly surprised. That’s just one of the reasons that this series is up there on my all-time favorites list. I think I said it best the first time: with “the sweet, funny, moving, and honest writing, this series is not to be missed.” I love these characters, love the message, and just plain love these books.
First Line: In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with melt-water splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.