The Amber Spyglass

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for the earlier instalments of this series. You can read my reviews of these novels [here] and [here].

The Amber Spyglass was written by Phillip Pullman and first published in 2000. It is the final part of the epic His Dark Materials Trilogy and draws all of the threads of the previous instalments together. As the novel follows on directly from where Northern Lights (published in America as The Golden Compass – 1995) and The Subtle Knife (1997) left off, you really need to have read both of these novels to have any idea of what’s going on in this one.

Lyra has been kidnapped by Mrs Coulter who now keeps her drugged in a remote Tibetan cave. She hopes that it will be enough to keep her hidden from the Magisterium, who plan to have her killed to prevent her from beginning a second fall of man. To achieve this end, they have already dispatched an assassin to locate Mary Malone – the one they call the serpent – in the hope that the doctor will lead him to Lyra.

Meanwhile, Will has been approached by two angels who wish to take him to Lord Asriel. They are aware of the powers of the knife and know it will be vital in Asriel’s war against the Authority. Will agrees to go with them, but only if they help him find Lyra first. Their journey takes them half way around the world and necessitates that he joins forces with one of Lyra’s oldest allies in order to find her.

Meanwhile, the sides have been drawn and the final battle against the Authority is beginning. Lord Asriel’s army has taken arms against the angels of the Authority, led by the warrior known as the Metatron. The result of this war will affect all worlds. Either the Authority will be destroyed, or the Metatron will seize control of everything…

The Amber Spyglass is a very hard book for me to review as I do remember this series with such fondness. However, I can’t really argue against the fact that this is by far the weakest entry in the trilogy. All of the problems that I raised in my previous reviews are compounded in this one. First and foremost of these is that Pullman’s ambition far outstrips his storytelling ability.

I’ve levelled this critique against the previous two books but here it’s more true than ever. The Amber Spyglass is not really a book for younger readers. The books have always had some pretty mature themes, but previously you could largely still enjoy the story even if you didn’t pick up on the deeper meaning. This is not the case in this book. In The Amber Spyglass, there is a very strong theological focus that affects all aspects of the story and if the reader doesn’t engage with this, the plot won’t make a lot of sense.

Some people have criticised this story as being anti-Christian, but I personally feel that it’s more a very long argument against organised religion in general. It focuses a lot on the nature of the original sin, and how this is in fact the very thing that makes us human rather than something we should be ashamed of. It also shows the positive aspects of Christianity through the character of Mary Malone – someone who gave up being a nun yet still misses some aspects of her prior spirituality – and how she contrasts with the terrifyingly self-righteous zealots of the Magisterium.

While this dialogue is fascinating if you are philosophically minded, I feel that it may be a bit much for a lot of young teens. Although the book is written with quite simple language, its themes are not nearly as accessible. Some also might take exception to Lyra’s sexual awakening, given the fact that she is only twelve years old. While this is quite ambiguously written (you could argue that she and Will sleep together, yet the only thing you know for sure is that they kiss), the fact that the characters are so young may put off some readers.

In terms of plot The Amber Spyglass is far longer than previous instalments, yet for the large part moved at a crawl. The third-person narrative is fragmented, alternating between a fairly large group of protagonists who are literally worlds apart. It also takes a very long time for some of these threads to come together. Mary – stranded in the Mulefa world – does not meet any of the other characters until around 450 pages into the book, and Lyra never comes face to face with Lord Asriel, meaning that she hasn’t actually spoken with her father at all in these stories since the death of Roger.

We don’t even really see much of the battle between Lord Asriel’s forces as the Authority. While Lyra and Will do briefly visit the battlefield, they are rushed across it so quickly that they don’t take much in. Instead, most of the book (at least, after the two are reunited) is spent just following them as they continue to travel between worlds and are motivated by a succession of dreams and plot conveniences. Along their journey, they are reunited with a lot of old faces (including some who died in previous instalments) and spend a lot of time discussing their theories about life, death and faith with them.

Yet, despite my grumbles, the story is still very moving and has some memorable scenes – some of which have certainly stuck with me over the seventeen years since I first read it. However, it still isn’t the happiest of tales. You should be warned that a lot of major characters do die over the course of this novel. It even manages to kill off one character for a second time. Gee, thanks Pullman. I hadn’t really recovered from the first instance yet…

It’s ending also remains one of the most devastating blows of my childhood. I won’t spoil it for you here, but I will say that I have never forgiven the author for what he does to Lyra and Will in the final act. It’s up there with the death of Littlefoot’s mother and most of The Animals of Farthing Wood on the list of fictional events that felt as though they tore my heart in two. You have been warned.

However, it was the characters that frustrated me the most in this story. In particular, Pullman seems to have had some real trouble writing his female characters. I’m going to put this down to the Shadowmancer Effect. While it’s not as objectionable as G.P. Taylor’s truly dreadful novel, it still commits the crime of transforming its female cast into weak shadows of their former selves.

In Northern Lights, Lyra is a fiery and strong-willed protagonist. This also continues into The Subtle Knife, where despite being portrayed as more mature she is still clever and resourceful. However, The Amber Spyglass made her submissive to Will. She’s shaky, unsure of herself and constantly cowers behind him. Seriously, what the Hell? I can’t describe how much this annoys me. Young Lyra had so many positive qualities and yet growing up seems to have left her meek and unassuming.

And yet, every character she meets seems to instantly fall in love with her. This isn’t the Lyra Silvertongue who deceived the armoured bear king. This is the tearful and shy pretender that doubts everything that she does. Even career villains like the detestable Mrs Coulter have sudden changes in heart in this story and fall over themselves to protect her. Really, this just felt horribly weak. It should take more than an off-page epiphany to completely change a person’s attitude to life. Mrs Coulter has just become a completely different person between books.

Anyhow, I think I’ve waffled on for long enough. The Amber Spyglass is a weak finale to an otherwise epic series. It was just too long, containing a very heavy-handed message and weak character development. Hopefully, Pullman will be back on form when the first Book of Dust is released later this year.

The Amber Spyglass can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Lyra’s Oxford / Once Upon a Time in the North / The Collectors | Arkham Reviews
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