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April 2001
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

THE AMBER SPYGLASS - Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2000; 518pp; $19.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-679-87926-9

I've come down a little hard on the first two volumes of this trilogy in previous columns (you can find those reviews in the January 1997 and December 1997 issues, archived on line at www.fandsf.com). My complaints were general (I hate how a big story has to be pulled into separate volumes that don't stand on their own, each volume published sometimes years apart) and specific (the motivation of the characters appeared to grow from the story's needs, rather than from the characters themselves, and there was no real character growth).

But there's obviously something I like about these books, because here I am reviewing The Amber Spyglass, the third and final in this Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I'll get to what that is in a moment, but first a little backstory to give those unfamiliar with the books a chance to catch up:

The Golden Compass was where we first met Lyra Belacqua, a wild child raised by scholars in another world, like ours and yet unlike. As Lyra travelled from Oxford to London, into the fenlands and then north through Scandinavia, half the fun was separating the bits of our world from those Pullman had made up. Gyptians (Gypsies), witches, a Texan balloonist, and other half-familiar characters contrasted nicely with more exotic creatures like the armored bears of the frozen north, and Pullman proved to be delightfully inventive with elements such as his alethiometer, a kind of mechanical Tarot (the "compass" of the title), and the shape-changing animal companions every human being has that come across as something between a pet, a friend, and a witch's familiar.

At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra found herself traveling from her world into another in search of the killer of her friend Roger. In The Subtle Knife we discover the new world she has entered is ours.

The second volume also introduces a major new protagonist in Will Parry, a twelve- year-old boy who is beginning his own quest to find his long-lost father, the explorer John Parry who disappeared many years before the novel opens. He and Lyra meet within the first few chapter, and circumstances quickly have them join forces.

By book three, The Amber Spyglass which is under consideration now, there is a war in heaven that has spread across the many worlds and Will and Lyra, as well as all the other characters, are caught up in the middle of it. There are so many different worlds and characters to keep track of that I highly recommend you go and read the first two books if you haven't already. I also don't want to tell you too much about the plot because it'll give away elements you should be allowed to discover for yourself--not only in this book, but in the previous two as well.

However, I will say that my main specific complaint with the first two books has been more than ably addressed in this last volume. While there are still some characters lacking depth and motivation beyond the requirements of the story (this character is bad because we need a bad character here, this one's good), all of the major characters have undergone a . . . I want to say transformation, but that's not quite the right word. What Pullman has done is he's deepened their characters, mixed up the whites and blacks of their make-up to allow for more gray. As I read this last volume I could no longer be sure of what anybody would do, and the ending of this book is superb--realistic, played fair, and bittersweet.

The previous books were somewhat light fare--event-driven adventure stories, strengthened by Pullman's delightful prose and inventive imagination when it comes to other worlds, the races that populate them, curious artifacts, and the like. The Amber Spyglass continues those positive elements and is still a page-turner, but also displays a remarkable depth that has turned it--at least in my mind--from an entertaining series into a favorite one, mostly on the strength of this concluding volume.

And I loved the way he was able to address some serious and large ideas without ever giving the reader the sense of being lectured. While I'm sure it will annoy certain people, this idea that the world we live in now is the "republic of heaven," that we should treat this life as though it is all we have and conduct, and enjoy ourselves, and appreciate it appropriately, is worth our consideration.

In a recent interview Pullman is quoted as saying about this series that he "wanted to emphasize the simple physical truth of things, the absolute primacy of material life, rather than the spiritual or the afterlife." In other words, don't wait for your rewards on the other side of death, but take, and give them now.

This is eloquently and beautifully conveyed in The Amber Spyglass, and he's doing it all within a YA fantasy trilogy. Talk about subversive.

His Dark Materials is eminently suitable for adult audiences. But it's also a series you can hand the younger readers in your lives when they've run out of J. K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, and Lloyd Alexander books, but still hunger for more.

*     *     *

STOLEN FROM GYPSIES - Noble Smith
Aubrey House, 2000; 279pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-9675448-0-7

Fans of William Goldman's classic The Princess Bride will certainly get a kick out of this novel. Like Goldman's book, this is a story told within a story, although in this case, rather than a modern father telling the "good parts" version of a bedtime story to his son, the narrator lives in the early 19th century: he's a sickly author relating the tale to his bumbling servant who constantly interrupts the story resulting in amusing conversations between the two and short digressions into other stories.

But what a tale the principle storyline is: A stolen Gypsy child. Star-crossed lovers. Villainous uncles. Pirates and highwaymen. Demons and duels. And then there are the stipulations attached to the protagonist's rescue from a curse: whether he wants it or not, he must answer an insult with an insult; when someone weeps, he must weep with them; and when he is in the presence of his true love, he is unable to speak in anything but unintelligible nonsense.

There are more interruptions than there were in The Princess Bride, and if my memory serves me correctly, Stolen from Gypsies is certainly bawdier, but it's just as funny and charming, and not at all derivative. I use Goldman's book only as a touchstone. While Stolen from Gypsies also has echoes of Shakespeare, old Childe ballads, and Cyrano de Bergerac, not to mention Monty Python, in the end, it lies in some mad classification all its own.

*     *     *

THE HEIDELBERG CYLINDER - Jonathan Carroll
Mobius New Media, 2000; 73pp; $25.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-9703786-0-2

Anyone familiar from other books with the quirky way Carroll's mind works will immediately appreciate the set up in this novella: what if the people who come peddling enlightenment and truth door-to-door actually have an inside track on how the universe works? And what happens if you decide to go along with them, to view the "proof" they can offer?

I'm not going to tell you anything more for fear of spoiling surprises, but suffice it to say that Carroll does a wonderful job setting up the premise and then playing it out. His prose, quirkiness, and wit are all in top form here.

It's too bad the same can't be said about the production values of this little volume. The cover by Dave McKean is gorgeous and well designed, but things immediately fall apart inside. The binding is terrible and the tiny text looks like a double-spaced manuscript with a justified right side. Words are underlined for emphasis, rather than set in italics. The copyright page is in an odd place as well.

All of which is too bad, as the story is wonderful and deserving of a much more attractive presentation than this. Especially at the price one is paying for it. I hope it will be reprinted in some collection, anthology, or magazine in the near future.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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