Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 10th, 2000
Format: Hardcover, 518 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

The final war with the Authority has come. The sides have been drawn. Ignorance and control or knowledge and freedom. That which was known as God was really just taking credit for creating that which was in existence long before him. Now his second in command is power hungry and wants absolute control over all worlds. A modern inquisition, which Lord Asriel will fight until his dying breath. Yet it's the breath of his daughter that is needed. She needs to live. She needs to fulfill the prophecy that she will put an end to death and become the new Eve. This might prove rather tricky as the Magisterium has sent a priest to kill her and her own mother is currently holding her captive in a drug-induced sleep in a Himalayan cave. It is up to Will, Lyra's staunch friend, to pull himself together after seeing the father he spent his life searching for killed in front of him by a witch and then have a pair of angels appear to direct the bearer of the subtle knife to Lord Asriel. But Will is up to the challenge and along the way to Lyra meets one of her old allies, the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison, who has fled the arctic as the opening between worlds Lord Asriel has created has destroyed his icy fortress of Svalbard. They find Lyra in the nick of time, taking her out from under the hands of the Magisterium and Lord Asriel. While Lyra was drugged she dreamt of her friend Roger in the land of the dead and upon waking knows what she and Will must do. If his knife can open a window into any world, surly that includes the land of the dead. They will journey there with two new companions, the Gallivespian, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia who ride upon dragonfly steeds, and speak to Roger. Will might even get a chance to talk to his father. After that? Well, who knows how their journey will effect the war... but effect it it will, especially once they are reunited with their friend Mary.

Well, the "end" is here. I say "end" in quotes because as we know now it's not really the end but back in 2000 it was that. The big battle, the Authority toppled, the end and the beginning all in one. Pullman could have concentrated on the war, made an unsubstantial confection of explosions worthy of the big screen sometime in the summer months with angels fighting angels but instead he decided to focus on his characters. Lyra and Will take center stage, as well as new favorites, and instead of a grinding depiction of war we're given something bigger. A journey of self discovery and redemption and hope while the war just happens to be going on off to the side. Am I the only one to say "thank god" only to realize that Lord Asriel would totally disapprove that I, as a thinking person, am giving thanks to an organization that thrives on ignorance and he made a holy war to topple? While The Golden Compass is Lyra's story and The Subtle Knife is Will's story, The Amber Spyglass is about their journey towards not just growing up, but the knowledge of what it is to love. They are the Adam and Eve of this story and as such they must taste the fruit of knowledge offered up by Mary and basically reboot the world. The problem in this though is the vagueness that Pullman uses when describing their love. I can't tell if it's because he's trying to write around it because this was intended for a younger audience, but is their love more than love? Are they sneaking off into the savanna for some hanky panky? He's embracing the ellipses, more than once I might add, and after this long of a journey with these characters I NEED to know if just the knowledge of love was enough to bring about the second fall or if Lyra and Will actually had sex.

As for those we know had sex... let's look to Lyra's parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, I'm sorry, she's too scary to ever to refer to her casually by her first name. SO much of this series is dealing with parental issues. A lot of that is to do with the fact that as we grow up we have our parents to look to as to what we will become and this either is something we embrace or something we buck. But there's no getting around the fact that Lyra's parents are horrible parents and this is the crux of the series. Lyra is drawn into their world and their war. She is at times a pawn but usually THE major player in all of it. But her parents aren't static, they change over time until they make the ultimate sacrifice for Lyra and one is believable and the other isn't plausible in the least. Lord Asriel's journey and his faith in Lyra make sense. He saw her grow up, pretending to be her uncle, and he is willing to die to protect Lyra because he knows that his daughter will end the war he has wagged. His sacrifice at the end makes sense. He dies taking down the angel in power while also giving Lyra time to escape and fulfill her destiny. But Mrs. Coulter. I just don't get her. When she shows up in Oxford and swoops Lyra away to be a part of her world it's almost like Lyra is a doll she's picked up to dress and play with. Yes, she does save her from intercision at Bolvanger, and she saves her again from the church to hide her away in a dank cave in the Himalayas, but why? She claims it's because her grinchian heart has grown three sizes because of her daughter, but I don't buy it. They say every mother has this overriding instinct to protect their child and lavish it with love, but that's not true. Just look at the world around us, just look at this story. I don't buy that Mrs. Coulter would sacrifice herself for Lyra. For her own purposes, yes, but for her daughter? No way.

Yet I don't have as many issues with Mrs. Coulter as I have with the Mulefa. Those loving elephant faced, diamond skeletoned people whom Mary spends all her narrative with freak me out. But to be fair, it's not in their nature, it's in their wheels. Father Gomez the killer priest was so right when he said that their use of wheels was evil, and yes, I know I'm agreeing with an evil assassin, but seriously, wheels! Yes, I know, technically it's ingenious evolution, but the truth is me and wheeled creatures have a dark history, one which makes me hate them all. Are there things that you saw as a child that just ingrained themselves so deeply in you that they make up a substantial part of your nightmares and neuroses? Not the standard teeth falling out nightmare that so many of us suffer, but a hate of zombies from seeing a certain movie too young. Or a fear of elevators because of what the hell was in outer space when Charlie and Willy Wonka stepped out of the glass elevator (and yes, I cop to this one). Well, when I was very young I stumbled on the comic adaptation of Return to Oz. If you haven't seen Return to Oz, well, firstly you should, but secondly, it's a really dark re-imagining of Oz and the second and third books in the series by L. Frank Baum. There's shock treatment and a lady with removable heads. So while the shock treatment just gave me interesting knowledge, and the lady with removable heads made me slightly freaked, there was one part of the movie that terrified me: The Wheelers. Forget flying monkeys, these minions of the witch Mombi are "people" with wheels for hands and hatred in their hearts and they will hunt you down. Therefore I can not condone these Mulefa, they are in essence that world's Wheelers! BEWARE THE WHEELERS!

OK, no more Wheeler talk, it's near Halloween, this movie is bound to be airing and the nightmares will return. Let's discuss a pet peeve of mine; quotes at the start of chapters, or even at the start of a book. I know for a lot of authors that they have a special meaning, that perhaps this certain line that they have included inspired them or sheds meaning on their writing or captures the essence of whatever is to come like some cryptic clue, but can I just ask all you writers out there to stop. If it's a clue or whatever it's annoying because after reading the chapter you have to go back and re-read it and see if you got it and if you didn't you just end up feeling really stupid. But most of the time, it just comes off as pretentious: "Yes, I have a Shakespeare quote because I've read all Shakespeare and know more than you, ha ha." "What, this obscure poet, you've never heard of them? How can you even live with yourself?" "Don't you just feel that this line wouldn't get it's meaning fully across without the weird spelling of the words and all that is implied by it's antiquity." So IF you're one of these authors, just know, THIS is what's going through my head and makes me hate you just a little bit. Or, if I'm honest, quite a lot occasionally. Here though, besides making me hate Pullman a little, because yes, I can see these quotes at the beginning of each chapter do reflect the world he's created and inspired him so I can't completely hate them though I reserve the full right to hate the tiny ass font they were set in, I can hate them for a logical reason... These quotes are all from authors from our world. Yeah, I agree, quotes from another world would be weird, but then again it might work. Why might it work? Because it wouldn't be grounding The Amber Spyglass so completely in Will's world. Like 10 pages in the whole book take place in that world yet each and every quote comes from there? Bad move Pullman. Bad move. You are tearing down the worlds you built and I don't even know if you realize it.

Though for all my nitpicking what I think Pullman got SO right is the new definition of the Kingdom of Heaven. Lyra and Will are told that each world has to build their own Heaven, which means that it's about cherishing and caring for the world and it's people because you're building the Kingdom with each act, with each thing you put back into the world. Which makes Will and Lyra's final separation into their own worlds make sense. Yes, it may pain them, but they are each such extraordinary people that think of what they can accomplish and build in each of their worlds? Their journey and their sacrifice create a new start, a new chance to fix the problems they see all around that have been caused by three hundred years of damage from the subtle knife and millennia of damage from the Authority. It's not just the humanitarian nature of this that so resonates with me, it's that when I think of heaven I don't think of some weird ethereal place I think of the world around me. Hence, if there is a heaven it would be here on earth. The best thing we could be given is a chance to live again, which is why reincarnation makes sense to me. Though within this I still have to question where Mary stands. She's an ex-nun who doesn't believe in God anymore and hence has turned to physics. Yet while the events around her show that "God" was really just taking credit for something he didn't do and that now his second in command is going power crazy, I think some part of Mary should have gone, "Oh wow, there really was a God and angels and etc etc." Yet she's still firmly entrenched in her new beliefs and despite there being correlations she just doesn't see that both things can be true. But then again she was friends with people who had wheels!!!


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