Trying to comment on The Amber Spyglass is a bit problematic, because many of the things in it which are worth talking about belong in a discussion of the series as a whole. And so, I’m going to do that, and this post will be short and sweet.
- In terms of pure literary skill, the other two were better. As Pullman deals increasingly with his philosophical themes, the characters are allowed to make odd and sometimes downright nonsensical decisions. He still hops perspectives, and there is the odd turn of phrase that reaches just beyond where his prose can actually take us. It’s still an interesting book to read, but it relies somewhat on the steam of the previous books to carry it through.
- Lyra is still weirdly more childish around Will, who is still fairly bossy.
- We get a solid look of the Church (at last), and I found it very disappointing. For all Pullman’s talk about patience and understanding (especially at the end), he has very little of either for the Church. Christians are simply stupid, cowardly, rabid, and devious. Perhaps he is simplifying to make a point, but in so doing he builds something of a straw man. Then again, I’m one of the people being critiqued, so I’m a bit biased.
- There is a last-minute attempt to humanize Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and it defies everything we know about them. Asriel’s prolonged and explicit indifference towards his daughter and Coulter’s outright cruelty are sprinkled with fairy dust and become a very extreme form of self-sacrifice.
- Iorek makes a series of stupid decisions, which take the sting out of his moment of doubt. I still respect him more than some of the other characters. He has a practical bent that I’m sure Pullman finds too simple, but I think in reality is often more perceptive than, say, Mary Malone’s philosophizing.
- The ending is a bit flat. In a series full of last-minute rescues and miraculous little chances, the final predicament is… out of character. He’s trying to make the point that life is really hard, and that adds value to it, but I’m not sure the rest of the book is half as pessimistic as the ending. There are too many moments of grace for such a conundrum to fit. Then again, that conundrum is balanced by another sort of hope, and maybe Pullman thinks that is compensation.
Despite all this, The Amber Spyglass was compelling. Pullman throws together vastly different worlds and people, investing all sorts of moments with extraordinary importance. He loves the pageant of life, and it shows. He also displays very real fears, and portrays them equally as well. At the end of the day, wonder and sympathy can carry a story past a load of faults. And in that sense, Pullman did well.