The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

the amber spyglassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 950
Series: His Dark Materials book 3
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Lyra and Will are in unspeakable danger. With help from Iorek Byrnison the armored bear and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must journey to a dank and gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent Amber Spyglass. An assassin hunts her down, and Lord Asriel, with a troop of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion, in a battle of strange allies—and shocking sacrifice.

So much is happening in this final book of the series. So much. And with all the plot lines, one would hope that everything (or at least something) would come together in the end and make sense. But it didn’t. Too many undeveloped characters alongside confusing plots that never really answer our questions or deliver on the prophecy made me pretty disappointed.

One of the plots (the major one, in fact) throughout the entire series is Lord Asriel setting out to kill god. He kills the all-powerful angel who was taking over, but is god actually ever killed? Wait, was he the really old angel who disappeared and was only briefly mentioned? This entire, huge chunk of plot just fell apart for me.

I’m thoroughly confused about whether Ms. Coulter is redeemed or not. I don’t know if she was lying about her love for Lyra and how she’d changed. And if she was telling the truth, what made her change? She was an excellent villain that morphed into a crying, desperate lump of a woman with confusing motives.

My final bone to pick is about the love between Lyra and Will. It happened so quickly and messily that I was rather repulsed, which was also due to them being something like 12 and 14 years old. When they realized their love for each other, Lyra became a fairly useless teenager unable to read the alethiometer and unwilling to tell lies and stories. I prefer to remember her as she was in the first book.

With all the characters and plots happening all over the place, I legitimately enjoyed Mary’s adventures with the Mulefa. I loved the world building and the emphasis on what evolution can do. I also enjoyed Will and Lyra going to the World of the Dead, which reminded me of the necromancing of The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix that I loved so much.

Finally, I did like the final “message,” if that’s what you can call it. In order to allow a window between the worlds to remain open, Lyra and Will must spread good deeds and help people be…good. Okay, I like that. Spreading the word of being nice to each other is a great message. I don’t understand how that prevents dust from escaping, but I’ll just add that to the list of plot holes.

Any commentary I could give on recommendations for kids and what to do with this book in the classroom can be found in my reviews of The Golden Compass and/or The Subtle Knife.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife

Reading level: 7.6
Lexile: 890
Series: His Dark Materials book 2
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary

Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Città gazze–a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies. For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.


Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery–and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat–and the shattering truth of their own destiny…

I struggled to like this book as much as The Golden Compass, although I loved the parts with Lyra and Will. Lyra is an amazing heroine and I adore her, but we only have glimpses of her adventure…which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue: this story is very complex. There are several puzzle pieces with various characters and their adventures, locations, and goals, and I struggled to create a clear picture with these pieces. Because there are so many components of the plot, we get flashes of many, many characters. I kept hoping that Lyra would take center stage, but she never did.

With so many characters and so many pieces of plot came fewer opportunities for me to fall in love with the characters. I adore books where one or more characters become very dear to me, and I felt less of that in this book than I would have liked. But that’s just my personal opinion.

I do not blame Will for stealing the show, just to be clear. I quite like Will’s character although he scares me with his tendency towards violence. Will and Lyra teaming up made me love and appreciate Lyra even more, and while I love Will, I love Lyra much, much more. I truly hope that we get more Lyra in the final book, even if it means less of Will.

I’m unsure of how Lord Asriel plans to do this, but apparently he’s trying to kill God. I guess someone is taking Nietzsche a little too literally. Anyway, I certainly see how some parents could be upset by this concept. But like one reviewer on Goodreads said, these books are not anti-God or even anti-religion. They are anti-organized religion that make people do horrible things, such as cutting people’s daemons away in this fantasy world or speaking out against certain types of people (gay people, for instance) in our world.

Here is an interesting part near the end that made my jaw drop. Seriously, I was in the car driving while listening to the audiobook and my mouth literally fell open. Mrs. Coulter is trying to get information out of Carlo, and she says, “You know I can please you more than this.” And then “her daemon’s little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man’s arm toward the monkey. “Ah,” says Carlo.  Um…wow. Not too subtle, there. In arguing that this book should be kept on school bookshelves, I’d say that very few young readers (middle school and younger, if not up through high school) would get the suggestive imagery, and there is absolutely nothing explicit. I just thought I’d let all the ghosts out of the attic in this review.

I’m about to start the final book of this trilogy, and I am hoping against hope that it’s better than this one and that I can leave this series with good memories more than mediocre ones.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

the golden compassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 930
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.

I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.

Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:

1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.

2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.

Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…

It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.