This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
I read the first two books in this series soon after receiving them as a gift, nearly 2 years ago, so there were some things I may have forgotten between the second book and this one (too bad I didn't do this at the time"¦). The long hiatus was mainly because I found the second book tedious and dull. While the first was full of action and spirit, the second dragged on and so I was not motivated to read the third. The Amber Spyglass, while not quite as bad as the Subtle Knife, was still not nearly as entertaining as The Golden Compass.
I should start by being forthright with the fact that I am a Christian so I am predisposed to not like the anti-Christian ideas this book presents. However, I think the criticisms I am going to raise have more to do with poor writing (or, rather, poor decisions) on Pullman's part and not due to may own bias. Still, I am willing to admit this may not be the case and will let you judge for yourself.
My main complaint with the book is that Pullman is a talented writer who allows a secondary motive to cloud what would otherwise be a very entertaining story. When he allows the story to develop naturally, the book is fantastic. His ability to bring together a wide variety of characters for climactic scenes (the battle at the beginning to rescue Lyra, the children travelling through the world of the dead, and meeting with Mary are just a few examples) are wonderful to read. Unfortunately, in the midst of a consistent, flowing narrative, Pullman will suddenly pull up and basically go "By the way, there's no God and Christianity is a mistake". More than being offended by this notion, it always seems out of character. It's like Pullman wrote thousands of pages just to sneak in a few lines of dialogue about how Christianity is a lie and anyone who believes it is a fool. For example, when telling Lyra and Will a story about young love Mary suddenly says: "I thought physics could be done for the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all" (393). No other explanation, or justification just "there's no God and Christianity is a mistake." Thanks Mary, I guess we can move along now"¦
What's even more surprising about this is that if Pullman really does have an agenda, which I believe is the case, than this is the exact wrong way to go about disseminating it. By being so blatant with his beliefs, he makes it easier for anyone who is not inclined to agree with him to simply brush him off as a fanatic. If, however, he had left these heavy-handed pieces of dialogue out, I believe his agenda would have been more subtle, insidious and corruptive to anyone reading.
After all, here's what we gather from the book if you remove the pointed remarks about God and Christianity, and just let the story stand on its own: There is no God, and instead just a powerful angel who acted like God. This angel, however, is old and now gone forever. After death, there is no heaven or hell, just an existence of nothingness, which you will now be freed from and your atoms will be spread throughout the universe. The purpose of life is to be free and open minded so you can learn and add to the knowledge of the world. There is no other purpose beyond thi,s as sentient existence is the most important thing of all.
Clearly, these lessons are what Pullman wants us to take away from the book and if he weren't so obvious with his agenda, he may have been far more successful in subverting Christian teaching. Instead, he makes it easy for anyone who doesn't already agree with him to brush the books off (and reveals to even the most unobservant that if you are a Christian, you don't want your children to read these books).
It's interesting to note that if Pullman weren't so talented, these sections where he gets on a soapbox would not be so obvious. However, because his characters are all so well-realized and believable, any bizarre behavior, such as Mary's rant above, becomes blatantly obvious.
If it's not clear already, I would not recommend these books (and the second and third in particular). More than just the fact that I don't agree with the ideas Pullman is trying to sell us, I think they are tedious and boring more often than they should be. Furthermore, Pullman allows a secondary agenda to interfere with the natural progression of the story by forcing characters to act and speak in an inconsistent manner that leaves the reader confused and disoriented. This is particularly unfortunate because the first book, untroubled by such breaks in the narrative, is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.
"When you choose one way out of many, all the ways you don't take are snuffed out like candles, as if they'd never existed. At the moment all Will's choices existed at once. But to keep them all in existence meant doing nothing. He had to choose, after all."Phillip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass
"In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below."Phillip Pullman the First Line of The Amber Spyglass
Phillip Pullman the Last Line of in The Amber Spyglass