The Amber Spyglass
A book review for parents
This third science fiction/fantasy book in the "His Dark Materials" series by Philip Pullman is published by Yearling Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
The Amber Spyglass is written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Book three of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy begins with preteen heroine Lyra in a drug-induced sleep. Her mother, Mrs. Coulter, claims she's put her in this unconscious state to keep her safe from the Church. Meanwhile, Lyra's friend Will (who wields a knife that allows him to move between worlds) searches for her. Readers learn that Lyra is the linchpin in a great spiritual battle. A decision she makes — though no one knows what the decision is — will change the course of the universe.
After Will finds and awakens Lyra, the children travel to the bleak land of the dead and rescue its miserable, listless souls. All the while, Lord Asriel, an iconoclastic explorer who is Lyra's father, and the Almighty's armies do battle: The Church attempts to assassinate Lyra while Lord Asriel and his angels try to save her so she can help establish a free, godless realm.
In Pullman's world, God (referred to as The Authority) was simply the first angel, formed from Dust like everyone else; but he lied to all who came after him by saying he had created them. The Authority's second in command, Metatron, is ambitious and wants to control human affairs. His lust for Mrs. Coulter eventually leads to his downfall. Church leaders are bloodthirsty zealots who plot to kill Lyra because of what she might do to hurt their cause. Former nun Mary Malone says she left the Church when she realized there was no God, that heaven is empty and that Christianity was "a powerful and convincing mistake" and part of the Church's effort to keep people's minds closed. This book depicts heaven as a place where God has imprisoned souls. It is dismal, and the dead are listless, restless people hungry for life and tortured by menacing birds that remind them in their sleep about the bad things they did in life.
The Authority (God), in his early life, was a controlling deceiver. In the story's present, he is a demented, powerless old man with an army of violent, fanatical followers. Lord Asriel had the wisdom to see through the Authority's deception and rebel. He appears coolheaded and intelligent. Mrs. Coulter, Lyra's mother, manipulates everyone, whether she loves or hates them, but she does eventually agree to die for "the cause" (of establishing the free, godless realm). Adult characters like the ghost of Will's father, the bear king, Mary Malone and others urge the children to champion Lord Asriel's cause.
Other Belief Systems
Witches are good, imparting "wisdom" to characters. Nun-turned-scientist Mary Malone consults the I Ching several times because she believes Dust (which symbolizes understanding) can speak to humans through many channels. She also makes frequent comments affirming evolution. Lyra tells the ghosts in the land of the dead that when she and Will free them, their atoms will go into the air, and they will become "a part of everything." An angel of Lord Asriel tells Lyra that grace learned by a lifetime of thought and effort is better than grace received freely.
When a bear king finds the body of his dead human friend, he rips it open and feasts on it (feeling it was his friend's final gift to him).
Lord Asriel kisses Mrs. Coulter, and Lyra and Will kiss a number of times. Their newfound love somehow brings a surge of Dust to the world around them. Will and Lyra stroke each other's dæmons (creatures that represent a facet of each human), which is an extremely intimate expression of emotion. Two male angels, though they weren't both male originally, display a desperate passion for one another.
Whitbread Prize for best children's book, 2001 and Whitbread Book of the Year.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics: In a Washington Post article, author Philip Pullman said, "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief." In light of this unabashed admission, parents may want to talk through worldview topics in this book with their teens:
Lyra says lying, cheating and betraying came as naturally to her as breathing. Though she seems to recognize that those actions are wrong, she says doing those things actually made her feel virtuous because she only did them for Will.
What do you think of that logic?
- ATTAINING WISDOM
Dust is Pullman's word for enlightenment. "Dust is a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself," one of Lord Asriel's angels tells Will. "Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed."
How do you feel about Pullman's assertions that we will gain wisdom and understanding by simply being open-minded and living for today?
Pullman's theories suggest that people can be free only if they abandon the "myth" of God. He also says we shouldn't mourn the loss of our innocence because it brings a "gain in self-knowledge."
Parents may want to revisit with their kids a Christian perspective of the fall of man (Genesis 3) and how, contrary to Pullman's declarations, knowing and having fellowship with God is what makes people wiser (Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; 15:33; 1 Corinthians 1:17-31).
- AUTHOR'S HONESTY
Pullman mentions names of people who are somewhat familiar to Christians, such as Calvin and Enoch, and then writes about them as if he were telling the truth.
Parents may want to talk to their kids about whether Pullman is presenting the facts accurately and encourage them not to take biblical references (in this book or elsewhere) at face value.
This book depicts heaven as a place where God has imprisoned souls. It is dismal, and the dead are listless, restless people hungry for life and tortured by menacing birds that remind them in their sleep about the bad things they did in life.
How is heaven depicted in the Bible?
What will be different there than in Pullman's "heaven," and why?
Notes: The first book of the trilogy was made into a movie, The Golden Compass, which premiered in December 2007.
For more on the "His Dark Materials" Series, read Plugged In's article, "Sympathy for the Devil."
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.