The Amber Spyglass (review)

Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (2000; repr. London: Point, 2001), 549pp. 8/10

This is the last in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, notable because its characters’ main quest is to destroy the god of Abraham. It’s a splendid thing for a book aimed at children to include, and I hope it convinces thousands of people that human life is for humans to live for themselves, and that obeying the laws of a real or imagined god is a foolish waste of precious time.


Aside from this message, the central point of Philip Pullman’s vision, for me, is intention. The final thing that the heroes must do, once a decrepit god and his tyrannical regent, Metatron, are dead, is ensure that all the holes in the universe are closed, so that “Dust” cannot escape. Dust, as it is called in the heroine Lyra’s world, or Shadow Particles, as it is called in ours (in the books), are conscious particles created by the purposeful activity of sentient beings. They animate the world with power and direction, gathering around adults and around tools and other objects that people invest with purpose and meaning.

In Lyra’s multiverse, Dust is the source of everything good, and her enemies, the Authority and his servants (including the Church) seek to destroy it, because it is product of and a conduit for human will, freedom, and desire. In opposition, the heroes’ mission is to ensure that sentient life can continue to saturate the universe with intention: the mission of sentient life is to enliven the world with the energy of consciousness.

It’s disappointing, then, that the story finally brings its heroes up against some very hard realities that intention cannot change. Young lovers Will and Lyra must separate forever after just a few days of romance because they cannot live outside their own worlds, and the openings between them must all be closed (bar one, which allows ghosts to escape from the world of the dead). The angel Xaphania tells them they have no choice but to give in, and their acquiescence in the face of tragedy contradicts the story’s valuing of intention. Their willfulness, surely, must be able to generate enough Dust to counteract the presence of just one more gate between the worlds, for their lifetimes alone… Despite the thematic contradiction, the ending is effective storytelling. It’s terribly sad, and it made me cry all the more because, like Will and Lyra, I will soon have to leave someone whom I love dearly, possibly for ever, but at least for the year or more that I will be away from Australia.

Disappointing, too, is the solution to the book gives to the problem of death. Lyra and Will descend (alive) to the world of the dead, where they free the ghosts of every sentient being that ever lived, held in bondage there without their souls by the Authority. The gateway that Lyra and Will open lets the dead leave their prison, but on returning to a living world, the ghosts dissolve into particles, joyfully reunited with the rest of existence.

For those who must die, such a vision (of dissolving into the universe) might be satisfying. It is very close to what I, in the small part of me that thinks like a Buddhist, expects upon death. However, in this time, when humanity seems poised to put an end to the death of human bodies, Pullman’s version of salvation for the dead is deeply uninspired. Here, again, there seems to be a contradiction: if sentience and intention are the sources of all good, wouldn’t the best outcome for the dead, and for everyone, be for them to retain their consciousness, even in ghostly form? I would prefer anything to oblivion.

The Amber Spyglass is a well-told conclusion to one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in years, but suffers upon comparison with preceding volumes because it fails to tie up some loose ends in the plot, and holds back in its celebration of human intention.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.