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Review Revisited: Philip Pullman – The Amber Spyglass

February 17, 2009

Re-read. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
His Dark Materials, Book 3

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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Ticket to Anywhere, Bending Bookshelf
I know more people have this have read and reviewed this book. If I missed yours, please leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

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.

***SPOILER ALERT***
For those of you that have read the book, help me put to rest a long-standing argument with some of my friends:

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2009 10:21 am

    I’ve read the first 2 books and need to read this one. My son has it at school with him, though.

  2. February 17, 2009 10:49 am

    bermudaonion – Oh no! Another reason to pester him to come home and visit, I guess. :)

  3. February 17, 2009 4:19 pm

    I really do want to read this series someday!

  4. darklordofdebate permalink
    February 17, 2009 9:27 pm

    I just listened to this series for the first time and I totally agree with what you said about the audio book. Whoever thought to do it as an “enhanced” audio book, half unabridged recording and half dramatization was a genius.

    The voice acting was so good, especially in Amber Spyglass, it made it even more emotionally powerful than it already was. Hearing the utter despair and love-torn anguish in Lyra’s voice screaming “No! No! No!” at the realization that she and Will must be parted in the end was absolutely heard breaking and had me in tears for the rest of the day, which is pretty rare for me as well.

  5. February 17, 2009 9:36 pm

    Ladytink – If you get the chance, you really should – they’re some of my all-time favorites.

    darklord – Agreed, completely. Normally full-cast audiobooks annoy me, but this series just completely blew me away.

  6. February 18, 2009 4:39 pm

    I really need to re-read these books. It’s good to know the audiobook is that good, but I read it and also cried like a newborn baby.But maybe knowing what’s coming will help me keep it together next time.

    Your poll made me laugh. I voted no, though :P

  7. Purple Butterflies permalink
    February 18, 2009 6:09 pm

    Hmm, Guess I’m in the minority here. I really didn’t like these books. I couldn’t identify with the main character who felt like she was dragged from one incident to the next without any real point to anything. MY mom asked me to read them because she was told that they killed god. Having studied spirituality I can grasp the relationship between dust and the Zero Point Field, but couldn’t keep up with the leaping from world to world. I was a little sorry to see the ultimate villain was one of my favorite Archangles. Ah well. Everyone is free to write what they wish.

    DW Golden

  8. February 19, 2009 10:51 am

    Nymeth – We have gotten in some *heated* debates about it around these parts. I think that’s the weakest link in an otherwise really well-constructed world, though. It was never clear to me why Will & Lyra… doing whatever they did was sufficient to solve the universe’s problems.

    DW Golden – Well, to each their own; I (obviously) thought they were fantastic. I’ve done my best to step around the controversial aspects of these books, but I think saying that they “killed god” is an oversimplification of the matter.

  9. February 19, 2009 11:33 am

    I also just wrote a detailed review of these books and an analysis of their underlying philosophy, which if you’re interested you can read here: http://prelator.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/his-dark-materials-book-review/ .

  10. J.S. Peyton permalink
    February 20, 2009 1:38 pm

    I finished this series myself a couple of weeks ago and I cried like a baby. I was moping around the house for the rest of the day.

    Anyways, I voted yes for your poll. Mostly because a while back I read – I don’t remember where – an article in which Pullman stated that he was forced to take out some of the more explicit material for the American publication of his series. I don’t think it was that explicit, but I got the impression that what was taken out would have made what happened between Will and Lyra a whole lot less nebulous.

    Wikipedia says:

    North American printings of The Amber Spyglass have censored passages describing Lyra’s incipient sexuality, which Pullman intends as a reevaluation of the tale of Adam and Eve. “This so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.

    • happy permalink
      April 18, 2009 4:18 am

      i think your right (not that i would really know cous i’m 11)

  11. February 22, 2009 6:13 pm

    darklord – Thanks for the link!

    J. S. – I haven’t voted in my own poll, but I’m a “yes” as well – mostly because I think half an hour of cuddling wouldn’t really have the *oomph* needed to save the universe. Now I’m really curious to get my hands on a UK printing of The Amber Spyglass to see what the difference is!

  12. February 22, 2009 7:50 pm

    I can’t find the UK version either, but in one of the articles (The Atlantic) referenced from the Wikipedia page, it says this, referencing the part where Mary tells Will and Lyra her story:

    “This simple story sets off salvation. When she hears it, Lyra “felt something strange happen to her body. She felt a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster.” (At least that’s what she felt in the British edition; the American version leaves these lines out.)”

    This in comparison to the American version:

    “As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had
    been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was
    somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the
    darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on…”

    So it seems it was just the sentence about stirrings in her hair and breathing faster (which I’m guessing they thought indicated arousal…maybe?). I don’t know if anything else was cut, but if that’s all, I still don’t think it indicates Will and Lyra actually “did it.” In fact, that same article quotes Pullman as saying, “Nowhere in the book do I talk about anything more than a kiss. And as a child, a kiss is enough. A kiss can change the world.”

    Honestly I’d say he’s probably right that at that age, a kiss probably is enough (well, technically French kissing in this case), and I think assuming more is probably just adults reading too much into the story and forgetting what the actual motivations and intentions of 12 year olds would be like.

  13. February 22, 2009 9:28 pm

    I voted yes because thats what I thought when I read it…even though I wouldn’t be 100% sure. Were they actually 12? i thought they were older than that. Lyra is 12 at the beginning of Northern Lights, isn’t she?

  14. February 22, 2009 11:06 pm

    Well Lyra at least is 12 in that part. When Mrs. Coulter is talking to the Magisterium toward the middle of Amber Spyglass, she says “My daughter is now 12 years old.” I’m not sure it ever says how old Will is and he might have been slightly older, but he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 since his daemon hadn’t settled yet either.

  15. happy permalink
    April 18, 2009 4:13 am

    i’v read all the books and i’m 11 all most 12 and i love them. the end is sad. you don’t tell us much at the end like do they ever see each other again? or what form are there daemons when they settle? and what dose will do about having a daemon in a world that yoy can’t see daemons?

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