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The Amber Spyglass    by Philip Pullman order for
Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman
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Knopf, 2000 (2000)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Amber Spyglass is the third and much anticipated novel in Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, epic fantasy on the scale of Lord of the Rings, though in quite a different and unique style. The story builds on and continues from the first two books and they should definitely be read first.

The first novel in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, introduces 11 year old Lyra Belacqua. She grows up a precocious orphan tormenting the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford in a world parallel to ours, in which everyone has their own daemon, an animal familiar. Lyra runs wild with her best friend, kitchen boy Roger until the beautiful Mrs. Coulter takes her under her deceitful wing, the Master of the College gives her an alethiometer which can reveal truth, and Roger disappears along with countless other children stolen by the Gobblers. Lyra travels to the far North with help from the gyptians and witches, to save Roger and her father Lord Asriel. In addition to the mendacious but resolute Lyra, Compass introduces the witch Serafina Pekkala, balloonist Lee Scoreby and armored polar bear king Iorek Byrnison.

The Golden Compass, was Lyra's story. The second novel The Subtle Knife brings in the second major player in the trilogy, 12 year old Will Parry who lives in our own Oxford. Will looks after his frail mother, disturbed in mind since his explorer father disappeared in the far North. In search of his father, Will stumbles upon a window to another parallel world where he meets Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon. They join forces to learn about Dust, which seems to be at the root of the evils that have occurred. This leads them to Dr. Mary Malone and eventually to a quest for the Subtle Knife, which has the power to open windows between worlds. Will wins the knife, finds and loses his father, meets angels and loses Lyra.

This sets the scene for Amber Spyglass, which starts with Lyra kept in drugged sleep by her mother Mrs. Coulter. Will rescues her with assistance from the less than powerful angels, the strong Iorek Byrnison and tiny but fierce Gallivespians, who spy for Lord Asriel. She, Will and the short-lived Gallivespians follow Roger and Will's father into the underworld, and make a painful sacrifice. Meanwhile the Church in Lyra's world have learned of a prophecy that she, like Eve, will make a fateful choice, and send a bomb and assassin after her. Mary Malone follows her own quest to the world of the Mulefa, benign creatures who live close to nature and the trees on whose seedpods they depend for wheels. Through them Mary learns to make the Amber Spyglass and to study Dust.

Pullman acknowledges a debt to Milton's Paradise Lost in Spyglass, and it is clearly there in the war that Lord Asriel wages against the Kingdom of Heaven ruled by the mighty angel Metatron. The underworld harpies who torture the dead through the ages also owe something to Milton. But the theological battles belong to Lyra's parents and mainly form a backdrop to her story and Will's. They grow up and give up much on their quest through the land of the dead, but they are both steadfast to their goal and to each other and they succeed after painful trials. Lyra, who has enjoyed making up stories all her life, learns the power of truth and Will finds out that Iorek was right and that a knife can cut its owner and cause great anguish. He learns how to see his own daemon and to love Lyra as more than a friend and companion. Lyra makes her choice and it determines the fate of all the worlds.

The Amber Spyglass makes a remarkable and potent ending to His Dark Materials. Pullman does not take the easy way out with a shallow and simple happily ever after ending but gives us one instead that matches the maturity of his hero and heroine. He has constructed a marvellous edifice across fascinating worlds, with an intriguing base of theology and philosophy, and peopled it with imaginative and complex characters. Though Pullman's protagonists are children and the stories are accessible to older kids, this is an adult fantasy and an instant classic.

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