The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass  

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass
By Philip Pullman, 1997 and 2000, paperback

You should know
I've read The Golden Compass and seen the movie. I borrowed the single-volume trilogy from Dan.

The Subtle Knife opens with Will, a boy from a different universe than Lyra, trying to protect his not-entirely-there mother from some intruders into their home. After accidentally killing one of these men, Will leaves his mother in the safekeeping of a friendly neighbor before accidentally finding an alternate world - where he meets Lyra.

Where Lyra is special because of her rare ability to read the alethiometer, Will is chosen by a knife to be its bearer, enabling him to cut the fabric between universes, allowing Will to see Lyra's world, and the two of them to visit new worlds together.

While in Will's world, the two meet Mary Malone, a physicist and former nun who is studying Dust, the strange particle that runs the alethiometer and clings to adults while eschewing children, and which has driven Lyra's parents to the point of obsession.

By The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will have their mission: to reach the underworld and rescue their deceased loved ones. Meanwhile, Mary is spending time in yet another universe, making friends among a society of wheeled quadrupeds. She manages to craft an tool - the titular spyglass - that enables her to see Dust, and thus to save her friends from a Dust-related plague that is killing off their most important crop.

If you read the above paragraph, you'll notice I said "by" The Amber Spyglass, not "in" The Amber Spyglass. While The Golden Compass stands very well on its own (though the second and third books fill in quite a few gaps in the plot), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass flow together, reading more like a single story than two parts of a whole.

Overall, I found the second and third parts of the trilogy to be much darker, and much more in-depth, than the first - but less charming. The Golden Compass might pass as a children's book - barely - but the trilogy as a whole does not. I always advise parents to read the book and make the call (some kids can handle this stuff, but I have no idea if yours can), but my general advice is to maybe wait a few years between giving them book one and following up with book two.

Read it...
...But if you haven't read The Golden Compass yet, just spring for the trilogy and read them all at once.

The rest of the Internet
Warning: Possible Spoilers
Pullman displays his illustrations from the chapter headings of the books.
His Dark Materials, an unofficial fansite.
Nick Gevers at infinity plus reviews The Subtle Knife.
Rachel Pastan at Salon is amazed the The Subtle Knife is marketed to children.
Need help? SparkNotes will walk you through the trilogy.
The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass, and the His Dark Materials Trilogy on LibraryThing.
Michael Dirda at reviews The Amber Spyglass in the context of the trilogy as a whole.
Polly Shulman at found herself far less disappointed with The Amber Spyglass than she expected to be.
David K. Kyle at The Candid Truth reviews The Amber Spyglass, and engages in a very interesting debate about the theological implications in his comments section.
Thomas M. Wagner at considers The Amber Spyglass to be a worthy conclusion to the trilogy.

Awesome link of the week
Ryan Bliss at Digital Blasphemy is an artist who makes wallpaper for your desktop. His designs feature planets, seascapes, pools of water... all created using his imagination and his computer. I currently have Cloud Canyon on my desktop at work, and people keep asking me where I took that picture. Heh.

Most of the images at Digital Blasphemy are only available to paid members (this is how he makes a living, after all), but there's a constantly rotating selection of free content available as well. I'm perfectly happy with the free pieces, myself, but I've been toying with the idea of joining up -- look through the gallery and see if you're tempted, too.

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