Tell Them A True Story

BOOK REPORT for The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials #3) by Philip Pullman

Cover Story: A Picture Window
BFF Charm: Love x2
Swoonworthy Scale: 4
Talky Talk: Formal Fantasy
Bonus Factor: Spirituality and Morality
Factors: Complicated People, TEABS
Relationship Status: No Worlds Can Keep Us Apart

Careful, Sweetie: spoilers! This is the third book in the His Dark Materials series, so if you haven’t read The Golden Compass or The Subtle Knife, you should probably hop back in the TARDIS and go curl up in the library by the pool with the first book before continuing. 

Also, spoiler warnings abound for THIS book, because I tried to keep it vague, y’all, but I had SO MUCH I wanted to say. Read at your own risk. 

Cover Story: A Picture Window

We’ve come to the final cover of my youth (although I don’t seem to actually have this copy anymore. Hmm). I’m pretty sure when you opened the gold front there was a full-page picture of Will and Lyra standing in the crowd of spirits. After all the many, many iterations of an amber spyglass (yawn), this cover is a breath of fresh air with a scene that relates to an actual part of the story.

The Deal:

Oh, where do we start? As this book gets going, Will is on the hunt for Lyra—who has been kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter—but so are two factions of the Church from Lyra’s home world. Lord Asriel also has his own spies looking for her, as she is to play a role in his war and he needs her protected. Stuck in a medically-induced sleep, Lyra dream-walks and sees her poor friend, Roger, who resides on the bland, never-ending plain that is the world of the dead. Mary Malone, who was traveling through a window to another world the last time we saw her, begins to integrate into an alien society and waits for everyone to come to her. And all the while, Dust is beginning to disappear from every world…

How will everything come together? What is this mysterious choice that Lyra has to make that will determine the fate of mankind? And can the Authority (AKA God) really be killed?

BFF Charm: Love x2

I mean, I’ve already given Lyra and Will platinum charms; what else is left? These two have been battered and bruised and still retain their compassion and wonder, and when I read this as a child I wanted to be them and know them and go on adventures. Now, as a grownup reader, I feel so protective of Will and Lyra. All I want is for them to have fabulous lives. I demand that, if we can’t live close by each other, we at least meet up every year to catch up, because I’m so curious about how they turn out as adults.

Swoonworthy Scale: 4

Okay, so this romance—obviously very different to read as an adult versus a pre-teen. It’s easy to be cynical and believe that their feelings aren’t as “real” because of their age, but Pullman does a good job of showing how Will and Lyra rely on each other and admire one another’s strengths—and if Speed taught us anything, we know that traumatic experiences can heighten any relationship. It’s first love on steroids, and it’s sweet and beautiful (but I can’t give it any higher than a 4, because there is nothing steamy about it and that is totally fine).

And speaking of, uh, steamy, I’d love to hear your opinions—when Will and Lyra declare their love for each other, they sleep together under the willow tree, and share kisses and hugs and all that good stuff. But do you think they actually have sex?? Once I’m done with this review, I’m going to do some reading (I didn’t want others’ opinions to influence me), but in the past I saw people alluding to the fact that Lyra and Will totally do it, and that is the “fall” that Lyra as “Eve” chooses. I never got that impression when I was younger—and I feel like I was a pretty savvy teen—so I kept a close eye on all the “between the lines” stuff this time around to see what I maybe missed. Yet I never felt that this was something implied or explicitly mentioned. Maybe I’m naïve? I’m definitely sure they made out! But implying that these two twelve-year-olds slept together makes it feel more tawdry and Stephen King-y then what I feel Pullman was going for.

Talky Talk: Formal Fantasy

This book is meaty. There are so many plotlines and heady concepts to unravel. It’s like Pullman designed the trilogy specifically to be read in one year increments, because I can see how many younger teenagers would love The Golden Compass and dislike The Amber Spyglass if they were to read it all at once without being prepared for the shift in tone. And sure, there are going to be plenty of people who simply don’t love this, whether or not they were “ready” for it. Pullman definitely has his own style of writing and an overarching story he wanted to tell. He’s not afraid to take his time describing the action and setting of a scene, and there are things he won’t spell out, expecting you to infer what’s happening. There’s a lot more emphasis on the adults and what they’re doing than ever before, and I could see myself at times getting impatient to see what my two favorite characters were up to. If I’m being totally honest, this book for me now would be a solid four stars versus five. I was thoroughly captivated the entire time, but it is a more…formal kind of fantasy than I am used to.

Yet as an overall series, I am still quite enamored. I think these books were some of the first to treat me, as a young teen reading it, like a mature person who could comprehend difficult ideas about life. People are going to be up in arms about what they view as anti-religious rhetoric, but I think the larger lesson that one should take from the book is to think for yourself and do good. Don’t let someone tell you what to live for; question the status quo, whether that be what organized religion tells you or any other authority figure in your life. And really, with the current way we as a society seem to believe everything we see in social and visual media, this call to arms has never felt so important.

Bonus Factor: Religion and Spirituality

Look, I’ll tell you up front that I have never been a very religious person. I took communion in the Catholic church because it was expected of me; I went to the born-again Christian church my dad started going to when I was a teenager because I had to, but I have never once gone to church of my own volition as an adult. I believe there’s a God, I believe there’s an afterlife in some shape or form, but I don’t think any particular religion has it all right, and I cannot stand behind any organized religion that judges people for being themselves. So all that to say, Pullman’s ideas about religion and spirituality don’t really bother me. I’m of the mind that young people need to be exposed to various points of view and arguments so they can decide what they truly believe, but there will always be those who disagree and don’t want their faith questioned. They’re gonna really hate this book, and I can see that bleed through in some of the one-star reviews I’ve seen of it. C’est la vie.

It’s not going to be possible in this review to unpack everything said about Pullman’s portrayal of religion. His version of the world of the dead, especially, makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, which is probably a sticking point for many. But regardless of whether or not you choose to believe like him that the best outcome of the afterlife is floating apart to become one with the atoms that make up the world, I think the point of what he’s trying to say is worthwhile:

“We shouldn’t live as if [other worlds] mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”

To me, that means what you do in your life right now counts, and don’t do something just because you think you’re going to get a better reward in Heaven or because you want to avoid going to Hell. Focus on acts of kindness and goodness in the here and now, because at least for this very moment you know you have the present. I don’t think that’s such a horrible thing for anyone, religious or not, to hear. (But I’d definitely be branded a heretic, so what do I know?)

Factor: Complicated People

Here’s another quote that’s easier to say in theory than to practice:

“And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone or that’s an evil one because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

And, boy, does Pullman test this with the characters of Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. For all intents and purposes: shitty, shitty people. But they make the ultimate sacrifice in defeating Megatron the angel, and mixed up in that decision is seflishness with some love for Lyra and for the greater good of all peoples. I forgot how much time we spent with Mrs. Coulter in this book, and she’s a tricksy one to pin down. At first I thought everything to do with her supposed newfound love for Lyra was a load of horse poo, but by the end I had to assume she was telling the truth at least some of the time. It was also an interesting look at what Lyra could have become as an adult if her extreme lying went completely unchecked—although I can’t see Pan ever idly sitting about pulling the wings off live bats for fun. That golden monkey dæmon was a horror show.

Factor: TEABS

THAT ENDING, YOU GUYS. It kills me every time. Yes, I cried again, full-on tears, even though this is probably the fourth time I’ve read it. This ending is the textbook definition of bittersweet. It’s not like Will or Lyra dies, and you’re pretty confident they’re both going to go on to have badass lives and amazing adventures, but the fact that they are forcibly parted in the throes of young love, and that the very act of seeing each other again would bring into existence a soul-sucking creature to torment another world…like, COME OOOOON.

“I’ll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you…We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams…And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight…”

It’s all so melodramatic, teen angsty, and very Lyra, but dammit if it doesn’t make me want to rage against the unfairness of life.

Relationship Status: No Worlds Can Keep Us Apart

Does it make me selfish that I would keep a window open between our worlds just so I can always be with you, Book? Okay, yes, it totally does, but how can I live without you??

Literary Matchmaking:

  

• If you want to keep going with a complicated structured fantasy world, Megan Whalen Turner’s got more than enough for you to dive into with her Queen’s Thief series. 

• For a character who is also disillusioned by religion, read Jeff Zentner’s powerful The Serpent King

• And if you want some religion, fantastical elements, and history all mixed up together into one heady read, you’ll find it in Julie Berry’s The Passion of Dolssa

FTC Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of this book. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. The Amber Spyglass is available now.