fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review The Amber Spyglass His Dark Materials Philip PullmanThe Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

At the end of The Subtle Knife, things were dire. Lyra had been kidnapped by her mother Mrs Coulter, whilst Will was left in the company of two angels with the subtle knife (which can create windows between worlds) and the altheiometer (that communicates with the mystery substance known as ‘Dust’). Refusing to accompany them to Lord Asriel, who is on the verge of war with Heaven itself, Will enlists the angels help in tracking down Lyra, and is soon joined by Iorek Byrnison, the king of the polar bears. Meanwhile, Lyra herself is forced into an enchanted sleep by her mother, whilst the powers of the Church and the Authority close in to end her life and thus the terrible threat she poses against them. When the two children are reunited, they hatch a plan to go right to the end of where the subtle knife can take them; right into death itself.

Mary Malone, who has been told that she must “play the serpent,” has reached a world where elephantine creatures wheel along on giant seedpods, and may just have the final key to unraveling the mystery of Dust. Pullman brings out all of his previous creations: witches, Spectres, angels, gyptains, daemons and cliff-ghasts are all here in full force, each with a part to play in one of the most exciting, controversial, imaginative and thought-provoking books in recent history. Yet unlike the previous books, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass has a few faults that does not make it quite the awe-inspiring finale I had hoped it would be.

Out of all three books, The Amber Spyglass is the most blatantly anti-religious; in particular anti-Christian. Now, I have my own religious convictions (though what they are irrelevant to this review), and a critique of faith is hardly going to endanger them. It was easy enough for me to thoroughly enjoy a book without agreeing to its message. After all, religion is a human construct, and I’m sure I’m not the only religious person to recognize atrocities that have occurred by self-righteous fanatics in the name of ‘religion’. But Philip Pullman takes this one step further and is anti-God. In his literary creation, God was not the creator, but simply the first intelligent being to come into existence. Again, I wasn’t that disgruntled: I had to admire the sheer nerve Pullman displays in taking on the concept of God, and anyone who has read Paradise Lost (on which these books are based) knows that Satan comes across as an epic hero, whilst God is somewhat of a bore.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNo, what bothered me about The Amber Spyglass was the general attitude held toward all religious people: at all times there is no good that can come from having faith in a deity of any kind, and no chance of a coexistence between those that have faith and those that don’t. In my opinion, the key to peace on earth is not religion, nor atheism, but tolerance. Pullman displays none of this, and seems to be saying that only way to deal with religious people is with scorn and mockery. Any impressionable young reader will most likely be inspired and enlightened by Pullman’s books, but on taking his standpoint, they may also adopt a negative attitude toward anyone that does not conform to atheist beliefs. Just as the stereotype of a Christian is an uptight, Bible-bashing bigot, atheists are steadily coming across as smug, arrogant dictators. Neither is particularly becoming, and the differences between the two extremes aren’t really that different. I say again, tolerance is what the world needs, and Pullman shows none of this.

As well as this, there are some very basic mistakes, which come across as sloppy writing — something I thought I’d never, ever accuse Pullman of doing. Serafina is practically forgotten, and the plot thread concerning the arrow she prepares for Mrs Coulter comes to an empty conclusion. Huge amounts of time are given to preparing Asriel’s army and the forces he controls, and yet we never hear the outcome of this physical battle. Lord Asriel’s statement in book 1 about how he plans to destroy Dust now makes no sense, and Pullman is forced to pull a 360 and claim that Asriel was lying. Lyra claims that she overheard the witch-consul Lanselius comments on her role in the witch-prophesy. But in book 1 Pullman specifically states: “She must fulfil this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing.” If she’d overheard this, then she wouldn’t be in ignorance, and the prophecy negates itself. As well as this, Pullman tells us that the prophecy concerning Lyra’s betrayal occurs when she leaves Pan behind when she crosses into the land of the dead. Not only do I fail to see how this was a betrayal (she had no choice!), but I thought the betrayal had occurred in book 1 when Lyra led Roger to his death. Because I thought it had already happened, my anticipation hadn’t been building up for this ‘real’ betrayal.

Then there’s the matter of the Gallivespians. Although they are wonderful creations (miniature people with poisonous spurs on their heels) the two that accompany Will and Lyra have no real purpose. The altheiometer insists that they are needed, but on close inspection all they do is convince the harpies of a deal, and get Lyra angry enough to see her Death. In other words, they do squat, at least not enough that justifies their presence, and do nothing that Will and Lyra couldn’t do themselves.

At the end of the day, His Dark Materials is essential reading, and I don’t think any book has stimulated my mind as much as these. Despite some faults in this final book, and an infuriating sense of superiority in the narrator’s voice, I have read the trilogy numerous times and enjoy it more each time. Thanks Philip Pullman for an unforgettable, intoxicating, extraordinary read — but I’m still not an atheist.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.