Books

Review: The Amber Spyglass

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The Amber Spyglass
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overall “Amber Spyglass” is a fitting but anticlimactic ending to the “His Dark Materials” series. If you’ve read the first two books and enjoyed them, you’ll probably find the third book worthwhile, but disappointing.

The theme of the third book is that an afterlife isn’t necessary for people to have comfort and to be motivated to improve the world that we live in. I think it’s actually pretty brilliant how Pullman takes all of his various plot lines and ties them back to this point. The more I think about it the more I realize how well the ideas of the book fit together into this cohesive message of hope that didn’t depend on an afterlife.

While I personally find my faith in an afterlife very comforting, I don’t begrudge comfort to those that need to find it another way. More importantly for me, I think that the tangential ideas of moving on after a tragedy and of making the world better in this life are things that are moving and meaningful to theist and atheists alike.

Pullman is actually pretty gentle with this message, building it slowly through multiple pieces, instead of throwing it in your face. Of the three books in this series, it’s definitely the second book that has the most potential to be offensive to Christians. If you were able to get through the second book without getting upset, then you won’t be troubled by this final book.

While I don’t think you’ll need to worry about being offended by the book, you may need to worry about being bored.

As the story progresses more characters and fantasy worlds keep being introduced. The new characters and settings just aren’t as engaging as the originals, so there are long sections where I felt bored because I didn’t really care about what was going on in that section. Not only that, but the new worlds and characters are so varied that it starts feeling very incohesive, and to me the previous atmosphere of the setting gets lost in the circus of the new settings.

The pace is also much slower and more dragged out. There were multiple points in the book where I thought “ok, now the story’s resolved”, or “ok, this time it’s really over”, only to find that I wasn’t yet near the end. It was kind of hard to keep going when I felt like the conflict was over and there was nothing left to resolve.

In the end I’m glad to have read the whole thing because of how well all of the pieces fit together when it was done. I do wish it’d been as engaging and entertaining as his other books instead of being a chore to finish.

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Review: The Subtle Knife

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The Subtle Knife
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second book in this series was my favorite. The plot and the world and the characters all got bigger, and Pullman’s storytelling stayed just as immersive and engaging. The second book begins to merge the fantasy world from the first book with our modern world, and as we meet new characters we’re pulled in very thoroughly.

I do feel like I should say something about the ideas in the book, since that’s why this series is famous. This second book introduces the antitheism that’s gotten it so much (negative) attention. Pullman creates a world where God’s existence is an undisputed reality rather than an issue of faith, but he paints God as a tyrant responsible for oppressing and for taking away freedom and happiness. He relies heavily on the symbolism from the Garden of Eden, sympathizing with Eve for being cast out because of her choice. Of course most Christians condemn Adam and Eve for their transgression, so I can understand how people would be shocked by the role-reversal of a praised Eve and a vilified God.

As a Mormon I already revere Adam and Eve for their choice in the Garden, so I agreed when Pullman painted a world where they were right to choose knowledge and choice and happiness even if it meant leaving paradise. It’s just that I believe in a God who also values knowledge and choice and happiness and not in one that restricts those things. For me it was still shocking to read God described as a tyrant, but I recognize that is mostly because Pullman uses names that are sacred to me and describes that person doing things that I don’t believe my God would do. That said, I think that if you’re willing to examine the ideas that the author presents rather than just the names he gives to them, you’ll find that there’s nothing to be offended at.

Unlike a lot of books that push a philosophy, Pullman doesn’t come off as preachy. He tells his story through a lot of realistic and complicated characters. The reader is sometimes just as unsure about who is right and who to trust as the young protagonists are.

All in all the story and the telling of it was excellent. The ideas the story presents are really intriguing and you may have your opinions about them. But regardless of your personal beliefs, at the heart of this book you’ll find what is simply an undeniably well-told fantasy story.

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Review: The Golden Compass

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The Golden Compass
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years ago they made a movie out of this book that didn’t seem to go very far. I probably never would have noticed the book or the movie, except that a bunch of over-zealous people online made a stink about it because the series has some atheist themes that they thought were inappropriate. It’s maybe a little ironic that their attempts to ban the movie actually got it more attention than it would have otherwise gathered.

In any case, I remember reading a quote from some religious writer who I didn’t recognize and can’t remember, but I remember the gist of what he/she said. They said that even as a religious person it was a good experience to read the book, and that faith can be strengthened by dialog even with opposing viewpoints. I thought that was a really cool point of view, so I gave the movie a chance. I don’t actually remember much of the movie now (except that I still picture Mrs. Coulter as a black-haired Nicole Kidman), but I do remember thinking that it was a cool fantasy world that it had created.

I never got around to reading the books until recently. I was reminded of them after reading a quote from Philip Pullman praising Terry Brooks for his fantasy writing. I’m a big fan of Brooks’ books, so that got me interested again, so I thought that I’d give this series a try. I wasn’t disappointed.

The fantasy world that Pullman creates is really intriguing and immersive, and his characters are very engaging. Most of all, though, he has a way of writing that really puts the reader into the mind of the character and makes you experience the thoughts and feelings of the character. His writing style is excellent, in my opinion.

As far as the philosophies of the book, it’s really not atheist (at least not in this first volume). The book does paint a Church that is dictatorial, but beyond that there’s nothing to be offended at, and that’s certainly not a new or unique idea.

Not only is it not strictly atheist, but it actually is very spiritual. In fact, the descriptions of Lyra and her alethiometer (which I assume is the basis of the American title of the book, even though it’s never called the “golden compass” in the text) are likely to be familiar to people that have had spiritual experiences. They were familiar to me, and I actually found that reading this book was very uplifting spiritually.

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