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Book review: The Amber Spyglass

Oh man! I feel pretty let down by how the trilogy ended! I don’t exactly agree with Becky, since her view is more specific towards the last scene, but I am rather dismayed with how the overall story and all of its plotlines ended.

And the sadly ironic thing is, the third part of His Dark Materials trilogy finally rises to the level of engaging storytelling that I like to see in epic books. Landscapes are painted in detail, not briefly passed through. Things happen not just for the sole purpose of advancing the plot, but to make the world alive and substantial. Characters develop, even though most of it is due to revelations, as opposed to steady emotional progress.

I cannot avoid spoilers in this not-exactly-review, including events up to the very end of the story. If you plan to read the book yourself and are sensitive to the idea of discovering the plot on your own, please do not read on.

The book starts with an utter confusion, following in the steps of the previous installment. The story picks up seemingly exactly where it was left, with Mrs Coulter capturing Lyra in the world of Citagazze just as Will spends part of the night finding and losing his father some yards away. Only Mrs Coulter is now already ensconced in a remote location in Himalayas in her own world, and Will has to travel for days and days to reach her. We are explicitly told during his journey that the windows between worlds that only he can make are positionally aligned – you cannot enter another world at the latitude and longitude of your choice, but only at the exact equivalent of where you currently are. And while the notion of world misalignment due to recent activities surfaces up later on, it still makes no attempts to justify how Mrs Coulter and Lyra ended up so far from Will so quickly.

Afterwards, though, the story picks up rather well with the build-up to the ultimate battle on one side and the largely tranquil world of the mulefa on the other. The time spent in that alternative world, with its entirely alien but likeable people, as well as the introduction of a gallant Lilliputian race from yet another world, were the facets of the story that I found especially welcome.

Will and Lyra, meanwhile, travel to the world of the dead, because Lyra has a vague notion of somehow helping her friend Roger whose death she blames on herself and Will wants to see his father again. Along the way, Lyra has to “betray” her daemon, Will realizes that his own daemon has always been inside him, and ultimately they open the door to eternal happiness for all the despairing ghosts of all times and universes.

As they emerge from the world of the dead into the now raging battle, the story begins progressing towards its resolution.

Lord Asriel, exulting in his recent revelation that his daughter is the key to saving the world, and Mrs Coulter, who now feels the love for her child above all else, sacrifice themselves to take down the biggest villain of all, so that Lyra can grow up and fulfill her destiny. Lee Scoresby’s and Will’s father’s ghosts, to that same purpose, suddenly become able to exist outside of the world of the dead, so that they can fight the soul-eating Spectres. And when Lyra and Will, reunited with their daemons, escape into the safety of another world, the battle of uncounted races and angels is simply left behind and forgotten.

The Authority passes away with nary anybody noticing, in a perfectly accordant way, I must say, since he is long revealed to be not the Creator, but rather an ambitious angel of early days, by now ancient, infirm and mentally incapacitated. It is his Regent’s demise at the hand of Lyra’s parents that has bigger implications for the state of the church, but we only get a cursory notion of that in Lyra’s world on the last pages.

What we concentrate on for the last few chapters is Dust. The explanation of how it came into being thirty-five thousand years ago is not provided, but the idea that it powers all living and sentient organisms in all of the universe is furthered. It is now inexplicably leaving the universe, and the key to stopping the process is for Lyra to become a woman and to fall in love with Will. Parallels with eating the Forbidden Fruit abound.

This is one of the best-written parts of the entire narrative, where you can practically touch the emotions as they swirl in the air. But!!! Forgive me if I cannot get behind the idea of a pair of 12-year-olds as lovers, even in the most non-physical sense of the word. Strong attachment – certainly. Closeness reinforced by shared trials and tribulations – likely. But love, along the lines of “I want to go to sleep with you and wake up with you every day for the rest of my life”? I don’t think anyone can be mature enough at that age to feel that way.

And the physical part (which, thankfully, is limited here to embracing and kissing on the lips)… Is it even biologically possible for tweens to understand the sensual side of love? What I remember of my own puberty and what I can observe in my teenage daughter suggests ultimate emotional chaos, which physical closeness could only make more confusing…

Then, it gets worse. Even though the outward flow of Dust in mulefa world stops with the first kiss between the kids, we are told that the Dust still leaves the universe, because of all the open windows between worlds. They all need to be closed. Furthermore, in a perfectly contrived way, the notion that every new window gives life to a Spectre that would feast on people’s souls gets introduced. Therefore, no new windows should ever be opened – even though there are already millions of Spectres across the worlds and a way of killing them off has not been mentioned.

That’s not all. Daemons, Lyra and Will learn, cannot last more than a few years in the world where they were not born. So, in order for both children to live full lives, they need to not only leave the Garden of Eden in which they found their love, but to return to their own worlds – and never see each other again (remember: No more windows to sneak through for a rendezvous). While I recognize that a child does not possess a lifetime spent with the loved one and can probably get over a loss of that loved one fairly quickly, the repeated reference to the children as lovers skews the picture. It may not be the ultimate sacrifice that they are asked to perform, but it just seems… pointless as far as story is concerned. What additional lesson is there in this turn of events is beyond me. Surely, the author could have saved the Dust without making the children part.

That’s not all. The Dust math, a helpful angel explains to us, allows for exactly one single window between two worlds to be left open. Whatever Dust escapes through that, enough will be regenerated by the sentient life to neutralize the loss. There is already an overwhelmingly important window out there, and it does not connect Lyra’s and Will’s world. The loophole for keeping it open is clearly necessary, but it does not feel any less forced because of that.

This unwinding of the plot, some with contrivances and some with abandoning important undercurrents, is the reason for my dismay.

In the end, Will is left at the end exactly how he started, with no father, sick mother, and potential legal troubles (did we forget that his adventures started with accidentally killing a burglar?). He gained a friend in his own world who lived through part of the adventure with him, and a full-bodied daemon, but beyond that, it is all just memories and the nebulous idea of doing something important with his life.

Lyra is also back where she started, and having lost her ability to read the alethiometer along with her innocence, she does not even know what came of her parents. Her perception of the world and of the people has visibly matured, and it appears that Oxford’s elders will guide her to higher learning and her own important life of work, whatever that might be.

And the universe? It is apparently saved, apparently free of the oppressive influence of the Authority’s kingdom, but there is not a clear sign of how it has become better, if at all, short of the unspoken supposition that at least it did not perish…

Was it worth it? Months of dangerous travels, discovery of strange worlds, deaths of dear people. And in the end, the same starting point, only maybe a bit wiser, and the sense of loss…

The epic provokes thought on many worthy subjects, from love to faith to being truthful to enjoying life to putting others’ needs before your own and on and on. And it finishes with the uplifting thought that if we all strive to be the best we can, in all our different words, we will make each of them into heaven. A startlingly simple idea that is tremendously powerful. Too bad that the expectation of a better future built into that does not translate into a bit of happiness right here and right now for our heroes.

Maybe, I am just a sucker for happily-ever-afters…