Monday, November 14, 2016

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

This is most likely the second time I've read The Amber Spyglass.  Like the other two in the series, I'm listening to rather than reading the book, once again excellently narrated by Philip Pullman himself. I can't recommend this experience enough; listening to some books is a chore, but this series has been a complete delight, although I was happy to see it end and move on to something else.

I was pleasantly surprised to re-read The Subtle Knife and find that I enjoyed it as much as The Golden Compass; I had originally remembered reading it and liking it but not quite as much as the first book.  I also remember reading The Amber Spyglass and coming away a little less impressed; this re-read, I'm even less impressed.

There is nothing wrong with the book.  But it lacks the wonder of the first book, and the power of the second book.  It's just - okay.  The first two stood out; they were tremendously powerful, but also subtle (no intent here).  The storytelling in each was superb.

Not so much in Spyglass.  For one thing, the narrative point of view just isn't as sharp.  Although each book has a third person omniscient point of view,  the first two were centered on what Lyra and Will were seeing and doing at any given moment.  What they were looking at was always filtered through their brain and experience.  Spyglass has a clunkier narrative voice.  Perhaps when you are listening, it really stands out; for example, in a huge battle scene towards the end, the children are watching it unfold from a semi-hiding place.  They see all of these creatures fighting one another, including minituature people who ride dragonflies.  They were able to see quite intricate details of the people and dragonflies - and Pullman was specific about the fact that they were seeing this; it was third person omniscient having a look-see.  I thought to myself - that's impossible for them to see all of that detail; they would have to have the best, sharpest eyesight in the world.  The book is lurches like this several times; I don't want to say this is lazy writing, but it's definitely not keen like the other two books.

The books is simply clogged with creatures and characters, causing the sink to overflow all over the floor.  Pullman apparently needed to plug in as many creatures as he could.  If the other two books had a slight coating of C.S. Lewis (certainly on purpose), I caught glimpses of Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz throughout Spyglass.  The Gallivespians would have felt quite at home Oz adjacent; and the journey through the land of the dead had the feel of Dorothy trekking through parts of Oz as well.

The book is also a hammer for Pullman's ideas, pounding away at our little pointed heads.  It's not a subtle hammer either (that was on purpose).  Occasionally pedantic, the book has Ideas galore.  In a book that is taking on organized religion, there has to be something that counters are fear of death and what happens next; one of the most beautiful scenes is a description of what will happen to our bodies when we die, our particles dissolving happily to become one with everything.  It's a comforting thought, to replace an equally comforting (at least for some) thought of playing harps with angels at God's feet.  Clever there, Pullman.

I'm happy I read this series again; deliriously happy I listened to it rather than read it the old fashioned way.  Pullman is still a creative genius and a strong writer.  But not every book is equally strong, and Spyglass suffers that fate.

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why is it that the last books in a series are always the weakest or worst of the series? A bit too preachy, sort of unbelievable, bits of forced plot to make things happen. It is exquisitely written - Philip Pullman is a master writer - the storytelling fell a bit flat. (2007)

The second time around, I listened to the book rather than read it, but I came away feeling exactly the same way. To add to my earlier review: the narrative point of view just is not as sharp as it was in the first two. Lyra and Will seems more passive; the omniscient third person voice seems farther away and less interested in them than before. This may be on purpose; I don't know. But it made the book weaker and less interesting. The book is also clogged with characters and plot.

Even more than the other two, The Amber Spyglass is a hammer for Philip Pullman's ideas and ideals about religion, which he then pounds away at on our pointed little heads. This isn't a subtle hammer either (ha ha). The book has Ideas galore, and they often get in the way.

I'm not sorry I read The Amber Spyglass; I was sorry to wave goodbye to this trilogy. Pullman is still a creative genius and a strong writer. But not every book is equally strong, and Spyglass suffers that fate.



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