Thursday, 2 February 2006

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass (2000)

Edition: Point, 2001
Review number: 1310

As anyone who has read my reviews of the earlier novels in the His Dark Materials trilogy will know, I am not a Philip Pullman fan. I did feel, though, that I should make an effort to get to the end of this series, as so many people rave about it. I had hoped that this would be a more interesting read, and I would finally begin to care what happened to Will and Lyra.

The novel starts with Lyra in a magical sleep in the power of her mother, while Will (and others, who are more sinister) search for her. Lyra asleep is a much more interesting character than Lyra awake, and this section is probably the best written of all three novels. But soon she is wakened, and from that point she and Will are questing through the worlds accessible with the knife (see The Subtle Knife) and the dullness returns, giving me an almost irresistible urge to skip large chunks (I only didn't because I was intending to write this review).

Pullman has frequently and loudly complained about the Christian symbols in C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories. However, the way that Lewis approaches his symbols seems to me to indicate a much greater writer and storyteller, regardless of his religious convictions. He subordinates the external ideas to the demands of his story (for example, the parallels between Aslan and Jesus are less exact than critics would make out). Pullman's ideas, on the other hand, seem far more important than any story-telling, and his symbols are clunky and irritating. They also tend to be pointed out very directly by the author - as when he describes the meaning of the knife towards the end of this novel. I don't really mind what the purpose symbolic objects hold in a work of fiction, as long as they're well done and their meanings contribute to the strengths of the novel. This is not the case here, and they just become intrusive, making the reader unable to ignore the fact that there is some kind of agenda behind what they see on the page.

My basic objection to this entire trilogy is that it is extremely dull. It certainly reads more like the kind of thing adults expect children to like rather than something that will really appeal to most children - a real contrast to Harry Potter. (I've seen lots of adults raving about His Dark Materials - but not one teenage or pre-teen fan.) I'm certainly not intending to read any more Philip Pullman, no matter how wonderful people think his books are.

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