The Amber Spyglass

by Philip Pullman - third part of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
A few random impressions. I can't in all conscience do a full and proper 'review' because I began it several years ago, only to put it down halfway through. Circumstantial reasons, I don't remember. Also, it's very much part of the whole, the whole trilogy, which I began even further in the past. But I've just finished it, today, and it's made more of an impact on me than I anticipated.

- Back when I stopped, it was frustrating; and I did skim ahead to get the general picture of what happened. Hm. I've yet to find an exception to the rule, that this is never a good idea, especially with a book of any complexity. Pullman's prose is very fine, and needs to be relished and nurtured, and you do lose out on some understanding if you skim, thinking you only have to pick up on main events. As I now know.

- This (right) was the edition I bought. I was on holiday in the US, and found it in a bookshop in Sag Harbor, at the tip of Long Island, New York. I was really excited, because the previous two volumes were so good, and the prospect of everything culminating in this was powerful. No way could I wait till I got home. And it seemed cool, to buy a copy in a different country.

- There have been two shocks provoked by this, the US edition. One, well, it's hard to call it a shock, really, because the fact that US publishers alter British spellings was not a surprise. I resent it, I suppose because for all their promotion of globalisation, when it suits them, they don't seem to want to let any smidgen of British English pollute their literature. US books are published here in their original US English, and our world doesn't fall apart.

- However, the other shock came only a few days ago, when I had a browse of Wikipedia. I had no idea that the US edition is censored. I haven't gone into all the changes, and don't really want to; I get what they've done. The short of it is that the cuts are trivial, but do seem to be intended to bowdlerise certain passages near the end which describe Will and Lyra coming of age. The original versions are in no way salacious and in fact beautifully written. They're about the very first glimmerings of adulthood, about the transformation of their inner selves. That anyone should have thought censoring was required... I really don't understand. Except for the somewhat insulting point that in the US the series was marketed for children, despite Philip Pullman being very clear that he had no such narrow targeting in mind. I still feel outraged that after all this time, I find that I have not read the book as it was written.

- Is it fantasy, or science fiction? This is not an important question. I just raise it because to my mind if it's science fiction, it faces slightly sterner tests of its world building. No I don't mean it has to be more 'realistic', that's not the point of SF. But if it's SF, it's also speculative fiction, it has to cohere and you get away with very much less handwaving than you would in fantasy. Right now, I would say that I didn't think, 'This is science fiction' while I was reading it, but on the other hand, all the way through its intellectual argument was clearly very important and would fail if the world of the books didn't make good sense. SF; most obviously because it all hangs on the premise of multiple universes. Pullman's rendering of the idea feels as good as any other SF author's.

- I didn't read the series in order. I was on another holiday, in France, where a friend's daughter produced The Subtle Knife, ie. the second book, which I read first. I was okay with doing this because it's told from the viewpoint of Will, virtually a new character. It's not parallel to the events of Northern Lights, but somehow switching the order didn't matter so much. I was immediately hooked by the notion of the subtle knife; and then by the depiction of Cittagazze, which instantly brought to mind de Chirico's paintings: this one (right) couldn't be a better example of the strange atmosphere of the place.

- Readers rightly delight in Pullman's inventiveness. Me too - the daemons, the multiple universes, the mulefa and so much more. A cousin of mine was responsible for the promotional site for the Hollywood film (I'm not commenting on that here, except to say I can't wait for the BBC series - probably why I wanted to get this book read now) in Australia, and it featured a brilliant game/quiz by which you could find out what your own daemon would be. And I can't remember what mine was! Though I do recall that no one was likely to come away with bad feelings about having a slug or something like that.

- Last thought, honest. The final and strongest feeling which I take away is appreciation of Pullman's writing, in particular his character depiction. Mrs Coulter is a brilliant example. She's a terrible person, and yet one of the most compelling and memorable personalities I've come across in literature. I absolutely know that even if I had all the relevant facts, I'd still be enraptured if I met her. In the end, if there's one thing he had to get right, it was Will and Lyra's growing up, and it's done to perfection. Heartbreaking, but life affirming, because it's real life which Pullman is really talking about.


  1. I enjoyed the first two, but found the third with its vision of hell or purgatory or whatever it was contrived and very dark (sic) and not much fun.... sadly haven't felt like reading any further since then...

  2. Couldn't really disagree... I preferred the first two books as well. I'm sure that his over-riding concern was to argue that we should live the life we have and not as if it's predicated on an afterlife. But I think his world building ideas do run away with him in this book (and it could have happily lost 100 pages!). I mean, he was inventing his own cosmology and brighter minds than his have struggled to do that. However, I still like his writing, and his characters.


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