The Amber Spyglass

 The Amber Spyglass  
 

By Philip Pullman

Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

 

    The task of an author of epic fiction parallels that of his central characters, however many hurdles they pass through, however far along the road they travel, the analogy of Odysseus' return, of Frodo's casting the ring into the fire, can always find a parallel in the author's achievement of a satisfying and truthful culmination.

    Readers of the first two volumes of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy were aware that the author had set himself a daunting task. The issues raised in The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife were profound, complex and, in many ways, morally challenging. They were also enthralling.

    The difficulty of bringing the trilogy to a fitting close was made apparent in the many delays in publication, stretching over more than three years, which the third volume experienced.

    The first two thirds of the third volume, The Amber Spyglass are superb, full of invention and vivid scenes. The sense of a gathering storm, a call to arms for every character of the story and every element of the plot, is masterfully executed. And then, at this magnificent apex, the book completely falls apart and implodes into a state of total failure.

    Three of the book's most complex and challenging protagonists, including the two heads of the armies warring over the kingdom of heaven, gather together and drag each other down into an abyss. With them go all the elements that made the book's resolution challenging and meaningful.

    The parallels of author and book are fully on display in this stark failure. The book presents the danger posed by an accelerating process by which a ubiquitous "dust", which makes life and maturity vivid, palpably enhanced and meaningful, is draining away into that very abyss. How deep is the irony that all the elements that made the book vivid and meaningful, that gave it life, drained right out of it after the trio of essential protagonists disappears.

    The reader, who has seen characters and issues drained of their essence, can only shake their heads as Pullman proceeds to save the universe and make everything okay.

    The strength of a book is founded on the strength and consistency of its plot and the solidity of its characters and the depth of their human interplay. Though Pullman maintained the skeleton of his theoretical plot, its physical construction, the fact of battle, the survival of Lord Asriel's rebellion, the essential force of personality on the story, are all abandoned almost without comment. Instead Pullman, who up to that point had crafted a book decidedly unsentimental in character, postulates that the universe is saved by the attraction of sentient dust to a sloppy binge of puppy love. Two loving hearts torn asunder by a universe saving noble sacrifice. The universe, incidentally, really, really couldn't be saved in any other way.

    Indeed, the book staggers drunkenly to a close, the plot firm, but its essence entirely emptied out. And what a shame it is.