Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys / ****

WinterTide_hi_compWhat I knew about Winter Tide before I read it was that Ruthanna Emrys had written a sort of homage to H.P. Lovecraft – but not the kind that we’ve seen all too many of in recent years. Instead, what I knew is that it was something unique; less of a pure homage to Lovecraft and in some ways a response, or a story that felt inspired by Lovecraft’s world but had no interest in exploring the style he had created.

Here’s, perhaps, what I wish I had known: what all of that means is that, yes, Ruthanna Emrys has written a Lovecraftian story…but one that’s not a horror story, nor has any interest in being one. Instead, it uses Lovecraft’s complex cosmology to tell the story of the town of Innsmouth – or, more accurately, the few survivors of that town after the government raid depicted in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” What might they have been like, wonders Emrys? What if what the agents saw wasn’t the horrors Lovecraft depicted, but simply saw an unfamiliar religion, one that felt primal and dark, but truly was just something alien to them? Such a reaction – fear, imprisonment, government action – certainly wouldn’t have been atypical of the period. What might it be like if you envisioned a world where Lovecraft’s tales happened, but they represented the fringes and the lunatics of that religion, and not the norm?

If you can picture that, you might have a sense of what Winter Tide is going to be – that, instead of the Lovecraftian horrors, what you get is a story of outsiders who are feared by much of society; whose religion embraces the unknown and places humanity as a tiny speck in the cosmos; who believe and practice magic not for power, but for knowledge; who see the fringe lunatics that practice the darker side of their religion as horrors, and not representative of what they do. And if, perhaps, some of this seems darkly familiar to you, Emrys underlines her point by giving the Innsmouth survivors a group they met and bond with – the Japanese citizens placed in internment camps during World War II.

What this all comes to is a fascinating, wholly unique take on Lovecraft’s legacy, one that’s inspired less by his prose or his unspeakable horrors and more by the underlying ideas of that horror: that mankind is just a speck in the universe, looking outward an unknowable creatures that might as well be gods to us – creatures that maybe don’t even care about us. All of this is integrated into a loose plot that finds our heroine trying to reconnect to her roots in an effort to work with the same government that attacked Innsmouth – this time to prevent the Soviets from using some of their magics to win the Cold War.

But really, Winter Tide is less about its story than it is the mood of the thing, and the immersion in a world of magic, strange gods, and fascinating creatures. It’s a world where unknowable things can take notice of us in horrible ways, but also a world in which outsider races commune under the ocean, or ancient groups find unity in back alleys. Winter Tide has a story, but what’s lingered with me is the strangely quiet, thoughtful take on a mythos that’s so often been about madness and devastation. As a book, it feels a bit slow and meandering, but as an experience, it’s something wholly unique and fascinating.

Side note: Winter Tide is actually the second story Emrys has written in this universe. The first was a novelette entitled “The Litany of Earth”; it’s included with the eBook version of Winter Tide, but having read it, I can’t help but feel that it provides an easier entryway into Emrys’s world, as well as setting up some of the main characters nicely. Luckily, it’s available here for free on Tor.com; it might give you a sense of how Emrys’s world before you jump into Winter Tide.

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It Devours!, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor / ****

185741If you’ve read this blog long enough – or browsed the archives – you probably know that I’m a fan of the wonderfully weird and bizarre podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes the form of public radio broadcasts from a small desert town that’s just like yours…if yours had lights in the sky, and vague yet menacing government agencies surveilling everyone, and a dog park that served as a gateway to another dimension, and blood matter storms – you know, a typical small town. Anyways, I enjoy Night Vale quite a bit, and I liked co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s first attempt to turn their podcast into a novel.

Now comes It Devours!, the second Night Vale book, which finds Fink and Cranor telling a story of religion (here, represented by the Church of the Smiling God, who will one day come in the form of a monstrous insect and devour our sins) and science (with a major supporting role by everyone’s famous handsome scientist Carlos). How all of this connects to the pits opening up under houses and business in Night Vale is best left for the reader to discover; suffice to say that, as always, Fink and Cranor have a wonderfully meandering but carefully plotted approach to their world, one that allows lots of doodling and imagination around the edges, but never forgets the story it’s telling.

In that, It Devours! is a bit more successful than the original Welcome to Night Vale novel, in which Fink and Cranor felt a bit more scattered (a la the original podcast). Here, they’ve managed to capture the silly side observations that make the podcast great, but keep the book more focused and streamlined. The fan-service feels cut down; the nods to existing continuity are there (and enjoyed), but It Devours! feels like it would be more accessible to non-fans, as long as they could embrace the weirdness of Night Vale.

More than that, though, It Devours! embodies all of the things that have made Welcome to Night Vale such a hit: a committed approach to diversity and acceptance, a warm spirit and kind heart (even in the face of unimaginable horrors), a desire to be earnest and thoughtful, and a complex view of the world that tries to understand everyone in it. That comes most into play in the novel’s approach to the dichotomy between science and religion, with neither being dismissed, and both being allowed to find a place in the modern world – even as both take their lumps in the story.

It Devours! ultimately feels a little light and disposable, for all of that; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but like the podcast, it’s a novel that’s less about its story and more about how it tells that story. That means you sometimes get characters who don’t feel like your standard three-dimensional characters, or normal plot arcs, or usual pacing…but none of that is necessarily a bad thing, not when the book is as enjoyable and wonderfully odd as this one is. I can’t tell you whether or not you need to be a fan in order to enjoy It Devours!; what I can say is, if you are one, you’ll be more than pleased with it.

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The Blighted City, by Scott Kaelen / **** ½

37905869I can’t claim to know exactly what made George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and its TV adaptation Game of Thrones so popular, but I’ve often thought that part of the appeal came from the way that Martin gave readers fantasy that often didn’t feel like fantasy – or, at least, not what fantasy is popularly conceived as being. These weren’t elves bantering about the role of men in the world, or forces of moral darkness arising in shadowy lands – Martin’s world was full of human beings scheming, thinking, and feeling, and if it was set against a fantasy backdrop, well, the price of admission was easier to pay for a mainstream audience than a more traditional high fantasy novel would have been. (None of which is to say that Martin invented the genre, mind you.) And authors like Joe Abercrombie, I think, have done similar things, giving rise to a new blend of high and low fantasy that’s deeply appealing to readers, giving us all the fantasy elements we enjoy while also giving us characters that we can engage with.

This is a long buildup to discussing Scott Kaelen’s really great The Blighted City, I know, but it’s also helpful, I think, in telling you what kind of book this is. There’s little denying that Kaelen has thought about his world and fleshed it out incredibly well – there is a sense of history to this place, from old friendships to fallen kingdoms, from forgotten villages to old war wounds, and every bit of it feels naturalistic and lived in. Indeed, even as I sometimes (and very rarely) got a little swamped in some of the world building, I never really minded it, because it was clearly given a shape and structure that made it all work. This never felt like exposition dumps or an author cramming in details; instead, it felt like a world slowly revealing itself to me.

But for all of that, at its core, this is a book about a trio of mercenaries (sellswords, in the language of the book) who are given the job of retrieving a family heirloom from a crypt in Lachyla, the titular blighted city. A place of unburned corpses and many superstitions, it’s a place with a reputation that keeps almost all visitors from its gate. But our trio of sellswords – the religious Dagra, the very atheist Oriken, and their leader (and superior fighter, as well as the sole woman of the group) Jalis – decide that the price can’t be beat. Mind you, if they knew what was waiting for them, they might reconsider that…

Look, the plotting here is a ton of fun – Kaelen does suspense and action well, and the way he slowly plays out his storyline is great in terms of pacing and reveals. I have a couple of issues (Oriken and the number of women who throw themselves at him over the course of these pages, with his constant reluctance, gets a little odd), but they’re relatively minor, and that’s largely thanks to how well-written and crafted the characters are. Kaelen brings this trio and their banter – and interpersonal ties – to rich life, making their dialogues about religion or their fears every bit as intriguing as combat to the death or the revelation of what’s going on in Lachyla. That’s not a small thing, but it’s a welcome one to have, and it kept me rocketing through The Blighted City with more attention and interest than I honestly expected it might when I first was offered a copy for review. By the end, I was sad to see the story come to an end, but glad that it ended well – yes, it may be part of a series, but Kaelen writes it like a standalone, and that’s a welcome choice in an era of constant serialization.

The short version, here at the end: I started this review with mentions of Martin and Abercrombie. If you like those, give this a read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the least.

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Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Four

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about.

After three days of films – a weak day one, a stronger day two, and a knockout day three – it was about time to wrap things up. But before I did, I had two movies left to see: one of the strangest films I’ve seen in years, and a mainstream-feeling horror film with a wildly unexpected final act.


mv5bnzu0nziwmtc5m15bml5banbnxkftztgwoti0mzi3ndm-_v1_sy1000_cr006831000_al_As of this writing, it’s been a little over a week since I saw November, a truly bewildering – but fascinating! – piece of Estonian cinema that blurs the lines of folklore, mythology, and religion into something wholly indescribable. The fact that the film opens with a creature made of sticks lassoing a cow and then flying away with it should give you a small sense of how completely bizarre the film is, but it really can’t prepare you for November‘s mixture of pagan traditions, werewolves, the Devil, soul-selling, sentient inanimate objects, reincarnated spirits in the form of giant chickens, unusual plague avoidance methods, and so much more. And yet, for all of that, November manages to be a tale of unrequited love, loneliness, and other universal human emotions, even as it’s undeniably one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long time.

It doesn’t hurt, mind you, that November is so beautifully filmed, with some of the most striking and lush black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen. Director Rainer Sarnet’s eye is a great one, and his use of the stark landscapes and the high contrast of his black-and-white film pays off beautifully, giving the film a haunting quality that saturates every second you’re watching it. Yes, the story is bizarre and often surreal (though whether that’s done with intentionality or due to my unfamiliarity with Estonian folklore, I couldn’t tell you); yes, the mix of magic and drama can be jarring and even comical (again, whether by accident or on purpose is beyond my ken); but there’s something remarkable and compelling about the film and the stories of unrequited love, loneliness, and isolation that it crafts around its small village. Not for all tastes, but for those open to its oddities and magic realism, it’s a fascinating watch. Rating: **** ½


mv5bmta4owq0ngytndgxnc00mzi4ltgznzktyzaxmdcymgi3otfmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntiyodmzmza-_v1_sy1000_sx675_al_For most of its running time, Ghost Stories (directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the latter of whom also stars) is a fairly conventional, if well-made, mainstream horror film. The film’s conceit is simple: a noted supernatural skeptic (Nyman) gets a chance to meet with one of his heroes in the field, who hands over three cases that he could never quite figure out. And over the course of most of the film, we go through these three cases, following Nyman as he interviews the three subjects (Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, and the always welcome and scene-stealing Martin Freeman) of the cases. Each case gives the directors a chance to take on a new variation on horror films – the abandoned mental hospital, the shadowy forest, the isolated high-tech but sterile house – and in each, Nyman and Dyson show themselves to be capable of delivering solid, if somewhat unremarkable, scares. It’s all about what you expect – some jump scares, lots of long takes, glimpses of things in the darkness, heavy makeup close ups shots of our ghosts, etc. – but it’s all done well, with some nice craft to it, and some nice lived in details that help the film along a bit.

And then comes Ghost Stories‘ final act, where everything goes nuts.

I won’t spoil the intricacies of that final act here; suffice to say, I don’t think it all really hangs together very well, and the longer I think on it, the more arbitrarily tacked on it feels to me. And yet, for all of that, I still love the sheer gutsiness of it, where the film finds a new gear you didn’t know they had and absolutely guns it as soon as it clicks into place. If the film’s main triptych feels a little safe and formulaic, that’s definitely not true for the last act, which gives you some wild images and surreal touches, takes the film a lot of places I didn’t expect in the least (the cynic in me would point out that it’s because the film gives you no way to even guess at it, and that it’s not quite playing fair with its audience), and kept me far more engaged and surprised – and off-balance – than I suspected it could. Yes, it’s a film that’s less than the sum of its parts – and yes, that final act feels more and more like a cheap screenwriting trick rather than a good reveal – but that doesn’t keep it from being incredibly well-made and generally quite entertaining. Rating: *** ½


All in all, a great year at CFF. Yes, this year’s festival featured maybe the worst film I’ve seen since I started attending (Downrange), but setting that aside, most of what I watched was fascinating in some way or another, and the best of the festival – The EndlessTigers Are Not AfraidNovember, to name the main ones – remind me of what draws me here every year. The selections are eclectic, the love of cinema evident, and the diversity of options always satisfying. Bring on year six, and bring it on soon.

IMDb: November | Ghost Stories

A Slew of Snow Week Reading

When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.


51qwwmse4bl-sx316-sy316Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***


ATWQInspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”“When Did You See Her Last?”“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustrationAll the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate EventsAll the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. 61uokarjc2lAnd it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory.  In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****

A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****


23208397Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****


Amazon: A Necessary End | “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” | “When Did You See Her Last?” | “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” | “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” | File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents | Underground Airlines

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden / *****

CoverThere is an art, I think, to writing about magic. To have a story that features magic is one thing; to have that magic feel truly, well, magical, is a whole other thing. Having characters able to do wondrous, incredible feats of supernatural ability is all well and good, but the best books about magic make it feel truly remarkable and powerful, like something primal and incomprehensible that we are on the verge of comprehending. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does this, as do many of the works of Neil Gaiman; Lev Grossman’s The Magicians often does as well.

And now, onto that short list, I can add The Bear and the Nightingale, a captivating, haunting, moody, enchanting debut novel by Katherine Arden, who blends Russian folklore and fairytales with a historical novel, and creates something truly remarkable – a blending of fantasy and coming-of-age novels, a reflection of how the growth of Christianity covered up ancient beliefs, a ground-level view of history, and most of all, a fantastic story that swept me into its rich world and left me hungry for more.

In some ways, The Bear and the Nightingale is a rich meal that should be savored, letting its pleasures reveal themselves over time, so I won’t say much about the plot other than the basic setup: that the book is set in medieval Russia; that it follows a rural family with connections to the Royal Prince of Russia; that its focus is the family’s youngest daughter, whose love of the natural world – and the folkloric creatures who inhabit it – is leading to her independent and willful spirit, which may not bode well for her future as a dutiful wife. How the story becomes something more ambitious – a parable for the replacement of myth with religion, how the magic of nature and history begins to manifest itself, how the old gods begin to awaken…I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

What I will tell you that The Bear and the Nightingale is a dazzling mix of fairy tale,  coming of age tale, and historical fiction, one that blends the three effortlessly and in a constantly exciting, unpredictable fashion. Arden’s prose is luminous, feeling both like a translated Russian fairy tale and something more poetic and beautiful, finding the beauty of snow-swept forests and of forgotten gods, of frozen rivers and religious icons. More than that, she brings her characters to rich life, letting all of them thrive in their complexity. Each trades off of archetypal roles – there’s even a wicked stepmother, to say nothing of a strict priest who finds witchcraft at a glance – but Arden refuses to let any of them be so simple, giving even her villains pathos, depth, and sympathy.

Most excitingly, though, Arden makes her story feel thrillingly alive in every single way, from the awe inspired by magic to the immersion in folklore, from the complicated personal relationships to the details that bring medieval Russia to life. The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of book – one that feels so immersive that taking a break from its story feels like a shock to the system, as you’re thrown out of Arden’s world and back to our reality. (Reading a book about the frozen woods of Russia in the middle of an icy cold winter? Even better for the immersion.)

I truly loved this book; maybe there’s no more obvious tell of this than the fact that, as soon as I finished the final page, I immediately ordered book two in the series and began it without even taking a break. And I already know that having to wait a few months for book 3 will be excruciating. It’s wonderful fantasy, immersive history, and a brilliant story of a young girl keeping the spirit of her homeland alive, even before it was a homeland. I loved it, and am excited that this is only the beginning of Arden’s career.

P.S. How refreshing is it to get a fantasy novel, especially one that’s part of a trilogy, that serves as an entirely self-contained story, with a true ending all of its own, even if the story continues? What a treat, especially in this age of endless series without a conclusion ever in sight.

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The Amber Spyglass / **** ½

51ibhcoarolThere are times when I think the only proper way to review a book is to read it twice, and that goes doubly when it comes to a series. Years back, when I first read The Amber Spyglass – the concluding volume in Philip Pullman’s astonishing His Dark Materials trilogy – I found it sprawling to a fault. The ambition was undeniable, and the thematic weight powerful…but it all just felt like a bit too much, as though it had lost track of the things that made me love the series in the first place.

Now that I’m re-reading the series – and more importantly, now that I know what Pullman is going for – The Amber Spyglass works far better. Yes, it’s still sprawling, far more so than its predecessors; it loses the intimate, tight focus on Lyra and Will, in favor of a war on God Himself and the conception of Good and Evil that anchors the Church. It’s darker, more philosophical, and far stranger; while The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife are pure adventure novels, The Amber Spyglass is about something far more abstract – it’s a book intended to prove a point that only gradually becomes clear as the goal of the series itself. And the fact that the book, in order to do this, needs to tell the story not only of the war against God, but of the Land of the Dead, and so much more…well, that can be overwhelming.

And yet, realizing that The Amber Spyglass is the book in which Pullman’s intentions become clear – that this is a book that wants to grapple with the central concepts of Christianity not simply by denying them, but by arguing with their intentions and assumptions – it’s not hard to see why the book feels the need to go so big. That’s a big ambition, and even more so when you consider that it’s done as a part of a YA trilogy. That Pullman succeeds is no small feat; by the novel’s end, he’s taken on complex theological and philosophical questions in the guise of a fantasy novel, and made it work, handling them carefully and thoughtfully. And the lessons that he’s working to impart are great ones – humane, logical, and important.

None of which would matter, though, if it weren’t also so well-told and exciting. The Amber Spyglass is every bit as imaginative, wild, and surprising as its predecessors – maybe more so, as its ambition takes hold in the novel’s second half. From angelic warfare to a bleak vision of the afterlife, from creatures who’ve evolved into wheel-mounted quadrupeds to our old friends the armored polar bears, Pullman packs his novel with details that could sustain whole other entries, but here function as just pieces of the whole. It’s a dizzying array of spectacle, all of which fits together into this fascinating, complicated world, and all of which is used to draw the reader along with constantly building tension.

But more importantly, at the end of the day, this is still a series about Lyra and Will, our two young protagonists on the verge of adolescence, struggling to find their own place in the world and figure out who they are. Pullman has done a wonderful job of using Lyra’s constantly shifting daemon as a metaphor for her childhood, and it comes together perfectly here, tying the overarching questions of the series to her coming of age. It could so easily be on the nose, or a step too far; instead, it all comes together perfectly, combining the plot and the theme effortlessly.

Look, there’s undeniably some arguments that The Amber Spyglass gets away from Pullman. I’ll concede that the book loses track of Mrs. Coulter’s motivations, turning one of the most compelling characters into something a bit baffling; I’ll give you that I feel like the book gives short shrift to its dazzling supporting cast, focusing on Lyra and Will perhaps to a fault at times. (Look, I love Iorek Byrnison. Is that so hard to understand?) And as much as I find the book’s larger ideas and messages compelling, I’ll even grant that it loses something in its scope, some sense of the rollicking adventure that drove the first two books.

And yet, for all of that, I can’t help but love The Amber Spyglass partially because of its ambition, for its desire to do so much, and to do more than be just a fantasy adventure series. As always, I’d far prefer an ambitious failure to a boring success, and while The Amber Spyglass isn’t a failure, I can admit that it’s not the perfect ending to the series. But it’s good enough – exciting enough, thrilling enough, powerful enough, and fascinating enough – to more than make up for whatever small shortcomings it might have.

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