Burning dazzle

The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman <em>Scholastic, 560pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0590542443

Philip Pullman's second novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife, ended with a cliffhanger. Its heroine, Lyra, was kidnapped after a battle, and the hero, Will, cured by his father just before the latter is murdered, was left to follow two angels to an unknown destination. The wait for the concluding novel, The Amber Spyglass, has been a long one - too long for some readers, who actually posted fictitious reviews on Amazon. Like the Harry Potter series, this astonishing trilogy has gained a place in the canon of great children's literature - not least for challenging the essentially conservative nature of such writing.

In Pullman's universe, God is the force of repression, authority and evil, and Satan is the force of curiosity, enlightenment and wisdom. The Republic of Heaven has arrived, and is bent on overthrowing the old kingdom. It is these quasi-gnostic concepts, thrillingly dramatised and explored, that have caused the Catholic Herald to condemn Pullman's His Dark Materials books as "a million times more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter". New Statesman readers should cheer.

The Amber Spyglass begins with Lyra being kept drugged and asleep in a Himalayan mountain cave by her mother, the beautiful but evil Mrs Coulter. Lyra's dreams are of the ghost of poor Roger, the boy whom Lord Asriel destroyed in his greed to make a bridge between her world and our own. Ranged against Lyra is not only the church, but God himself - or his deputy, the archangel Metatron, an angel who was once a man. One of Pullman's many brilliant touches is to portray Metatron, through the burning dazzle, as a middle-aged man in a suit, as it is to have him fooled by Mrs Coulter's "pure, poisonous toxic malice" and his own lust for her flesh. As the boundaries between worlds crumble and the polar ice caps melt, they plot together to destroy Lyra and the rebel army.

But Will is not about to abandon his friend. The two angels guiding him turn out to be a pair of camp but passionate superbeings. They want Will to take the "Subtle Knife", which can cut holes between different worlds, to Lord Asriel to aid the rebel angels in their battle against God. Will, however, forces them to rescue Lyra, and she in turn is determined to rescue Roger. In a hair-raising fusion of myth and religion, the two children proceed, like Christ, to harrow the land of the dead. In order to do this, Lyra has to not only separate from her soul, or daemon, but also change from being an instinctive liar to a storyteller.

At the heart of Pullman's work is his passionate but deeply unfashionable belief in not just the art, but also the importance of storytelling. In Clockwork, he described the way in which a story was like a timepiece (a clock that, if given love, could become a human heart). Here, telling the truth about your life is literally what gains you safe passage out of hell. Yet, while holes remain in the universe, the dust of which all matter is made continues to pour into the abyss of nothingness. What will reverse the tide?

A multitude of writers, from William Blake to Diana Wynne Jones, have clearly influenced The Amber Spyglass, but less satisfactory is the science-fiction element. This is not because SF is to be despised, but because, in this novel, the depiction of yet another world as discovered by yet another protagonist, Mary Malone, becomes too much. Was it really necessary to introduce both the mulefa, creatures who ride on seed pods and communicate with their trunks, and the tiny Gallevspians, who ride on dragonflies? One of the great pleasures of Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife was the way each continually expanded its fictional parameters. Here, that has become an embarrassment of riches.

The great strengths of the novel remain the vividness and beauty of the writing and its protagonists, whose experience of wonder and adventure is always rooted in realism. Lyra, one of the best female creations in children's literature, is, like one of Balthus's feral girls, on the verge of puberty. This "coarse and greedy little savage", we discover, is the new Eve. When she and Will become lovers, it heals the universe, but breaks their hearts - and that of the reader. They are left wiser, stronger and braver, but do not live happily ever after.

It is often said that children's literature attracts the emotionally immature because it offers consolation. That cannot be said of this remarkable trilogy. What it offers instead is an intellectual challenge as to the essential nature of the human and the divine that few intelligent individuals, be they adults or children, will be inclined to resist.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich