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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Book Review: The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)

The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman

There was going to be the greatest of battles. Favorite characters would struggle and triumph, despised ones fight and fall. Entire worlds would then retire to happy endings. Readers, with contentment, would gently close the books, or put down their e-readers, and go be heavily in thought under shower heads. Then fealties to Philip Pullman would, by the skeptical and the undecided, be unequivocally and cheerfully declared. How he rose up to his challenge, putting together a crazily ambitious trilogy of exciting adventures and even bolder themes, with The Golden Compass as its surefooted first step, pointed to nothing less than an explosive and satisfying conclusion, a comeuppance long overdue. Maybe my fancies got ahead of myself. But how could they not? The Golden Compass left me impressed and restless for more; The Subtle Knife didn't disappoint, either, and still held my undivided attention.


No surprise, then, that The Amber Spyglass drew the short straw and had bigger shoes to fill, though its feet turned out to be a little too little, my hopes a little too high. It isn't the best, or the worst, but just generally a mixed bag: many chapters are lightning-quick reads, some a drag, and the last seven on the anti-climactic side. Other books have spoiled me; the closer their last pages get, the faster and more furious they become, culminating in a spectacular bang, followed by congratulations and confetti. Pullman isn't so formulaic as that, and more books would do better with that kind of daring. Most of The Amber Spyglass are thrilling and jam-packed with action, without sacrificing substance for the superficial; three particular scenes are especially unforgettable: when both sides converge at the cave in an everything-goes-to-hell moment; when Mrs. Coulter tries to save Lyra from a long-distance, mind-blowing (sorry) assassination; and the best yet, when Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, with their daemons, quadruple-team against Metatron. But the book also has some glaring flaws that hurt the momentum and, as they appear in the later pages where way too much time is spent with the mulefa, make for longer-lasting impressions that almost spoil the rest of the apple-cart. Some of the symbolism feels overbearing with Will and Lyra supposedly reenacting Adam and Eve's private sessions (there's a kiss and a lot of adoring gazes exchanged, but the implication of the rest is loud and overlong). "[Y]ou and I could live here forever and just love each other," Lyra swears. "I will love you forever," Will swears back, just as adamant. Plans to meet each other again as atoms are quickly arranged, as simple as deciding on the spot in the park at which to wait for the other. It's all very well and touching on paper, but I never could buy into their star-crossed love, forced as it felt to me. "Forever" is a big word for thirteen-year-olds to be throwing around, and my sentimentality is not so easily bought. Some explanations need explaining. New characters, like the Gallevespians and Metatron, feel almost like afterthoughts when they should've been eased into the story earlier; The Subtle Knife is definitely short enough that room could've been made for them, the logistics of which I would leave up to Pullman's discretion. Less significant, but no less distracting, is how much of everything is immense: pines, canyons, prairies, priests, mountains, silences, time, despair, and coal furnaces must all be "immense" and no other synonyms. It was unobtrusive enough in the first five instances, but by the twentieth, my body had become resigned to the involuntary twitches to which that infernal word would give rise. To a lesser extent, if an intervention still seems unwarranted, "presently" is another familiar sighting. Notwithstanding, abusing words, especially when Pullman's writing is spotless elsewhere, is a lot better than abusing thesauruses, though no abuse would be preferable.

If you've gotten this far, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife now behind you, nothing, no words of criticism, no disappointed sighs, no fatwas against Pullman (which actually would be wonderful publicity), will stop you from reading this book, and Dust help anyone who tries. The Amber Spyglass may not have left me very enthusiastic to champion the whole of it, but the same can't truthfully be said for some of it. There's Lyra, by now so well-established she even has her own adjective: "little whimpers of pity and rage and Lyratic resolution shook her breast and her throat." Her character seems to annoy some people, but her personality is so endearing; I still balk that Lyra has to share the spotlight with Will, to whom I never did warm up (though when he and Iorek Byrnison first meet rates up there among my favorite scenes, probably more due to the latter than the former). Lyra's parents, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, have much more prominent parts to play here, and their scenes together are a source of never-ending fascination. Entire books can be written about those two playing off each other, and I would eagerly read them all. Mrs. Coulter, so layered as to exhaust you even before you attempt to understand her initial motivations, has easily the best character arc in the whole series; morally gray characters get all the love, and rightly so. Lord Asriel more than makes up here for his absence in the previous book, but just in scenes he has with Mrs. Coulter. In the first book, major chills were had near the end when Lord Asriel revealed to Lyra his endgame. "Death is going to die," the man said with infectious confidence, and Pullman goes the full distance and presents us with yet more amazing world-building and, not to exaggerate, a couple of life-changing outlooks on death: the idea that our death, as real and unique to people of the land of the dead as daemons are to people of Lyra's world, accompanies us when we're born in the world, and leaves with us when we expire, strangely fills me with the warm fuzzies. "'Your death taps you on the shoulder, or takes your hand, and says, ‘Come along o’ me, it’s time.’'" The poignancy is moving, perhaps too much so; excuse me while I move to my balcony.

But in all seriousness, His Dark Materials, warts and all, has been a fantastic reading experience. I regret that The Amber Spyglass failed to measure up to my admittedly impossible expectations, but I definitely don't regret having chosen this series to read before all other possible and innumerable choices (the first few of which being the Bartimaeus, Abhorsen, and Mistborn books). The characters, from Lyra, Pantalaimon, and Iorek Byrnison to Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, and even Will, are going to be missed and, when bored, sometimes revisited in my daydreams where I would imagine what they may be up to (it helps to know, through the text and addenda from recent editions, that Lyra goes on to become an alethiometrist and Will to study as a med student; they're very fitting). What a shame I read these books only now and not at a younger age. Much of the symbolism may well have gone completely over my head, and much still probably does, but the life lessons they promote are inescapable and invaluable: make the world a much more agreeable place "by helping [everyone else] to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious." What moral filth!