Third novel in Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, completing the story told in The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. As with the others, it was marketed as a book for children and young adults. While it's not inappropriate for young readers, it's beautiful and complex enough for adults. The large cast of characters is never handled haphazardly; all are developed with care and depth. The logic of the fantasy world is intriguing in itself, but never allowed to displace the novel's humanist concerns.

Mild general spoilers below, delimited by asterisks.

The final installment, larger and denser than the first two, sees Lyra and Will reunited. Both must struggle to balance committments to each other and to their comrades with the world-shaking missions that others force on them. These "others" include angelic hosts, the Church that rules Lyra's England, and an army preparing a second rebellion against God. We learn more about the golden compass, the subtle knife, and the msytery of "Dust," as well as the more generalizable mysteries of love, loyalty, and oneness with the universe.


Overall, an enthralling and sometimes moving novel. It's also action-packed. My only complaint is that it's a little too dense; Pullman seems to have been constrained by his format and forced two or three full novels' worth of plot and characterization into 500 pages. Nonetheless, it's a true book.

The Amber Spyglass is also an item within the story.

more serious spoilers below

Created by physicist and seer Mary Malone, the Amber Spyglass is an instrument that allows humans to perceive Dust, also known as sraf. Using it, one can differentiate sentient beings and their artifacts from animals and inorganic matter. It is also able to detect the great cosmological changes in Dust that have developed in the past 300 years. Materially, the spyglass is merely a device for polarizing and unpolarizing light, but when rubbed with a special psychotropic oil (found in a universe where intelligent creatures live in symbiosis with a tree that produces the intelligence-increasing substance) it develops its spiritual properties.
This last book in the His Dark Materials trilogy is the culmination and unravelling of much of the setup in the first and second books. It is nigh impossible to coherently summarize or indeed read it out of context, so I shan't try here. The series in its entirety is highly recommended in every way for both children and adults, and although the last book is indeed a little dense, I don't agree with the WU above that this is due to Pullman's having "run out of space".

It would have been impossible for Pullman to write some of the prophetic content of Northern Lights if he didn't have a pretty shrewd idea, and quite likely a first draft of the next two books already. As he himself calls the trilogy "a story in three books", my assumption while reading was that he simply cut the story up into three parts, unequal in size, according to an internal narrative logic. In any case the trilogy is already in the shops in collected form (no doubt for a silly amount of money, but what can you do), and I rather suspect it will in time become a single work in the public imagination, much in the same way as the Lord of the Rings trilogy has done.

In recent news, The Amber Spyglass yesterday won the Whitbread Prize for Best Children's Book and Book of the Year. In previous years Pullman objected to his books being shortlisted for the prize as the regulations meant if he won the Best Children's he wouldn't be considered for best book. The regulations were amended, in part owing to his protests, and in fact J.K. Rowling was considered for Book of the Year herself a couple of years back. This is the first time in the award's history, however, that a children's book has won the prestigious overall prize.

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