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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman

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To purchase The Amber Spyglass

Title: The Amber Spyglass
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 518 pages
Availability: The Amber Spyglass - US
The Amber Spyglass - UK
The Amber Spyglass - Canada
The Amber Spyglass - India
Le Miroir d'Ambre - France
Das Bernstein-Teleskop - Deutschland
Il cannocchiale d'Ambra - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : big adventure, with many fine parts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 24/10/2000 Karen Carden
Daily Telegraph . 23/1/2002 Claudia FitzHerbert
Fantasy & Science Fiction . 4/2001 Charles de Lint
FAZ . 20/3/2001 Lorenz Jäger
The Guardian . 28/10/2000 Julia Eccleshare
The Hindu . 19/8/2001 David Davidar
New Statesman . 30/10/2000 Amanda Craig
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2004 Michael Chabon
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/11/2000 Brian Alderson
The Observer . 16/9/2001 Stephanie Merritt
Salon . 18/10/2000 Polly Shulman
San Francisco Chronicle . 19/11/2000 Michael Berry
The Spectator . 11/11/2000 Claudia FitzHerbert
Sunday Times . 29/10/2000 Nicolette Jones
The Washington Post . 29/10/2000 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Generally enthusiastic, some very much so

  From the Reviews:
  • "Its myriad twisting and intertwining plots and its emotional roller coaster make it an exhausting yet exhilarating read. (...) Various questions, deceptions, and discoveries challenge readers to grapple with their own ideas of God, religion, life, love, and death." - Karen Carden, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Judged by itself, The Amber Spyglass is a great baggy mess of a book. Threads left lying about in the two previous volumes of the trilogy are picked up and re-examined but there's not a lot of tying up. (...) Yet the book does contain some of the most haunting passages of the trilogy." - Claudia FitzHerbert, Daily Telegraph

  • "The previous books were somewhat light fare -- event-driven adventure stories, strengthened by Pullman's delightful prose and inventive imagination when it comes to other worlds, the races that populate them, curious artifacts, and the like. The Amber Spyglass continues those positive elements and is still a page-turner, but also displays a remarkable depth that has turned it -- at least in my mind -- from an entertaining series into a favorite one, mostly on the strength of this concluding volume." - Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • "Erfindung aber macht noch keine Geschichte. Erfindungen können auch in Hirngespinste münden, denen am Ende doch die Magie, die Wärme und die anheimelnde Stimmung einer guten Erzählung fehlen. Bei Pullman sind die Figuren gut, böse oder zweideutig, wie vor allem Mrs. Coulter, Lyras Mutter. Aber sie alle besitzen nur die Dimension der Fläche. Den Bösen fehlt die Tiefe, den Guten der Humor und dem Schriftsteller, der so stark in allem Technisch-Maschinistischen ist, der Zugang zum Menschlichen und zu seinen Schwächen." - Lorenz Jäger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "If anything, The Amber Spyglass is more intense than its predecessors. The climaxes are bigger; there is a fresh fire in the writing; and there is a wonderful new cast of characters -- notably, a pair of gay angels. Above all, Pullman pursues his central philosophical theme with even greater passion." - Julia Eccleshare, The Guardian

  • "The Amber Spyglass is the longest of the three books, and it is probably the best of the lot." - David Davidar, The Hindu

  • "The great strengths of the novel remain the vividness and beauty of the writing and its protagonists, whose experience of wonder and adventure is always rooted in realism." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman

  • "By the end of the third volume, Lyra has lost nearly all the tragic, savage grace that makes her so engaging in The Golden Compass; she has succumbed to the fate of Paul Atreides, the bildungsroman-hero-turned-messiah of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, existing only, finally, to fulfill the prophecy about her." - Michael Chabon, The New York Review of Books

  • "In that boundlessness lie both the strengths and the weaknesses of 'The Amber Spyglass. Pullman's intellectual imagination has scope for inventions that can match his ambitious themes, but such freedom overrides the constraints of plot and characterization necessary to a credible and satisfying dramatic shape. (...) These large and unconvincing themes, however, should not obscure a recognition of Philip Pullman's skill as an artist in the minutiae of storytelling. Time and again, from The Golden Compass onward, he brings small scenes alive with a perfect ordering of description, action and dialogue" - Brian Alderson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a gripping, erudite and vivid novel, full of magic -- parallel worlds, talking armoured bears and demons, the animal incarnations of the soul -- but solidly anchored in real emotions. To describe it as 'fantasy' would be as reductive as to label it 'children's fiction'." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "Given the delicious promise of the first two Dark Materials books, some disappointment was almost inevitable. But The Amber Spyglass delivers surprisingly little of it; the latest novel is nearly as satisfying as the first two. (...) That's where I felt a bit of disappointment sneak in. To make all the equations work out, Pullman has to introduce sexuality in characters that I felt were still too childlike for it to be convincing. He shuts doors and ties up loose ends in a way that feels, for the first time, slightly artificial." - Polly Shulman, Salon

  • "What distinguishes Pullman's work is its toughness, its unwillingness to accept the easy answers or deliver the expected effects." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Amber Spyglass suffers to some extent from what preceded it. It has to build on the extraordinary edifice that Pullman has already created. It is too much to recap the plots, but the third book has at least to remind the reader of what has gone before -- it cannot stand alone. (...) The Amber Spyglass sometimes reaches the heights of imaginative and emotional power that we have come to expect from this trilogy, but not throughout. Trammelled by its own aspirations, like Milton's Satan, it pays the price of overweening ambition." - Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times

  • "Even those who judge his theology objectionable will find Pullman's sheer storytelling power sinfully irresistible. But make no mistake: This book views organized religion as repressive, life-smothering, mendacious and just plain wrong, right from the beginning of time. (...) Despite various flaws (...) His Dark Materials is an overwhelming reading experience, brought to a sublime and touching close by The Amber Spyglass. In another time, this is a book that would have made the Index, and in still another era gotten its author condemned to the stake as a heretic." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Philip Pullman daringly opens the final volume of his His Dark Materials-trilogy with his heroine -- unimaginative but brave pre-pubescent Lyra -- in a deep sleep. And he doesn't wake her up until almost one-third of the way through The Amber Spyglass (page 156 of the 518-page book). Lyra (or rather: Pullman) has had sleep-issues before, notably in Northern Lights (US title: The Golden Compass), where the girl nods off with alarming frequency. In the first volume it is perhaps an accurate portrayal of a young child, who understandably can be overcome by fatigue, and here there's also a good reason for her prolonged slumber -- but whatever the reason it is not a dramatically effective device. Pullman peps her sleep up with some dream fragments, but that's not nearly good enough. Lyra is dangled tantalizingly in front of the reader but she does nothing (and not that much is done to her). It's a disappointment: Pullman has juggled so many characters and story-lines up to this point (easily too many, one might argue) and here the one that's likely of greatest interest just lies dormant.
       Fortunately there's a lot going on all around -- though, again, it's arguably too much, and not all explained in adequate detail. Will decides to try to save Lyra ("She's the most important thing") and sets everything else aside in order to do that. He gets some angelic helpers and, eventually -- hurrah ! -- enlists bear king Iorek Byrnison (whose kingdom isn't quite what it used to be -- much as many of the various worlds in Pullman's meta-universe have undergone changes for the worse).
       The Church also finds itself pushed to more desperate action. The President of the Consistorial Court goes so far as to suggest:

It may be, gentlemen, that the Holy Church itself was brought into being to perform this very task and to perish in the doing of it. But better a world with no Church and no Dust than a world where every day we have to struggle under the hideous burden of sin. Better a world purged of all that.
       Dr. Mary Malone has also made her way into a different world, and her efforts there offer one of Pullman's more entertaining and clever inventions again, as she takes up with unusual creatures called mulefa who get around in a quite remarkable way.
       Lyra is the key, and many of the actors (or their emissaries) converge on where she is. An exhausting sequence of otherworldly chases and escapes ensues. Among the dramatic highpoints: the subtle knife breaks, Lyra and Will are accompanied for part of their trip by Lord Asriel's spies, Gallivespian, with whom they have an uneasy relationship, and -- most impressively -- there's a lengthy detour to the land of the dead.
       The land of the dead sequence is among the highpoints of Pullman's trilogy: a fairly clever idea, well-realised, with some impressive twists. But once that's done Lyra and Will still have to set off to save the world(s) of the living.
       The clashes get more heated (and, in part, confusing), as many different creature-types get involved in what appears to be the final showdown. The Church isn't pleased (and even sends out an assassin), Mrs. Coulter betrays more often than one can keep track, Lord Asriel does what he thinks is best, and Lyra's friends -- from Iorek Byrnison to the witches to some dead folk and many more -- all try to help her do what she needs to do. Authority's end is particularly striking ("he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own" Pullman audaciously envisions), and there's incredible fighting to near the end.
       This huge showdown is a climax, but there's a lull after this storm -- and there's still a lot left to do. Lyra and Will next come upon Mary Malone and the strange world she finds herself in (and has adapted very well to), where she has made some discoveries of her own with the amber spyglass of the title that she has made. There's more that needs doing; most of all: love needs to be embraced and discovered, and there is a bit of Adam-and-Eve to it too ("Lyra sat up and found herself naked" ...). Everything is finally nicely tied up, as it's learned what needs to be done to set everything right (a task that conveniently can be dealt with by a horde of angels) and everyone winds up pretty much where they should -- an ending that also comes with a few satisfying twists of its own.

       The Amber Spyglass offers a good bit of drama and action, and some of the adventures are very well done. The land of the dead and the world Mary Malone finds herself in are, in particular, successes. However, the book is overfull with the good and the bad, and occasionally gets messy in its chases and escapes. Coincidence is ever-helpful -- and remains, as coincidence on this scale so often does in fiction, unconvincing (Pullman's acknowledgement, that it all comes down to: "A lot of little chances, all coming together" again doesn't make it any more convincing).
       The large cast also proves unwieldy: characters pop up on the scene when it's convenient, and then disappear when it's not, and the larger overview is lost (Pullman far too rarely stepping back and explaining; "As darkness fell, this was how things stood"). Far too many of the characters are also presented merely as role-players, there to do something but without anything more to them. Lyra and Will, at least, make for decent heroes, and Pullman even pulls off their tricky final transformation well. Few of the other characters are anywhere near as successful: Mary Malone, at least, is allowed to come into her own, while Mrs. Coulter double-deals so much that even she doesn't seem to know what she wants.
       The greater battles here -- over death, over Dust, over how the world is meant to be -- are more problematic. Pullman isn't a Christianity-fan ("The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all") but all he has to offer in its place is similar mystical nonsense (including his alternative to hell). He maintains:
the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.
       But 'wisdom' is an elusive thing too, and the Pullman focusses almost solely on the manifestation (as he sees it) of wisdom and stupidity -- good and evil. Which seems entirely too simplistic.
       Having so much hinge on love, and Lyra's innocence -- and utilizing an Adam-and-Eve scenario of sorts (with innocence, love, shame, and temptation) to start things over again -- also seems to be giving Christianity more credit than it deserves, an acknowledgement of a fundamental validity of its foundations (coupled with the devastating critique of the institutions built up on it).

       The Amber Spyglass is a decent adventure fantasy. Will and Lyra are engaging enough as central characters, several of the adventures (and the other creatures) are quite impressive, and things are satisfyingly neatly tied together in the end. Pullman tells the story fairly well (though a few overcrowded muddles and ignored characters detract somewhat), and it is, for the most part, a good and fairly exciting read.

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The Amber Spyglass: Reviews: Philip Pullman: Other books by Philip Pullman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Philip Pullman was born in 1946. He has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning books, mainly for younger readers.

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