This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the third book in the “His Dark Materials” series.
Twelve-year old Lyra is in a drug-induced sleep. Her mother, Mrs. Coulter, claims she’s put her in this unconscious state to keep her safe from the Church. Meanwhile, three groups: the Church, the rebels headed by Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, and Lyra’s friend Will search for her. Will wields a knife that allows him to move between worlds.
Spies report to the rebels that the Church believes Lyra is the most important child who has ever lived because Lyra is the linchpin in a great spiritual battle. A decision she makes — though no one knows what the decision is — will change the course of the universe. She is in the position of Eve.
The Church sends young and eager Father Gomez on a sacred, secret mission. He is to follow the tempter who will lead him to Lyra. He is then to kill Lyra. Mary Malone, who is an ex-nun, a scientist and the tempter, finds herself among the mulefa, which are sentient beings with seedpod wheels and the ability to see even the smallest particles, such as Dust, with their eyes.
Will finds the sleeping Lyra and plans to take her into another world, but he breaks the knife. Then a young girl awakens Lyra with a potion. Lyra has been dreaming about Roger. She feels responsible for his death and insists that she must go to the world of the dead and say she’s sorry.
Iorek, the bear-king, helps the children repair the knife. The children travel to the bleak land of the dead. Roger tells Lyra about the harpies who torment the dead. Lyra wants to lead the ghosts out of this place.
Lord Asriel has spies, who are accompanying Lyra and Will in their travels. The spies strike a bargain with the dead and the harpies to stop the harpies from tormenting the dead. The dead agree to tell the harpies true stories of their lives. The harpies, who are nourished by true stories, agree to not torment the dead and guide them instead to the way out.
The Church, using a strand of Lyra’s hair and a powerful device, hope to disintegrate Lyra. They fail, but the attempt sets off an earthquake. Lyra, Will and the ghosts now find themselves clinging to underground cliffs alongside the Abyss. Will cuts through to another world, and as the dead walk into it, they disintegrate, their atoms becoming part of everything.
Meanwhile Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter fight to the death against Metatron, who is the Regent of Heaven after becoming more powerful than the Authority over Heaven. Using the knife, Will and Lyra free an unknown old man from a crystal litter. The author interjects that he is the Ancient of Days. The old man dissolves in the open air. The battle between the armies of the rebels and the Ancient of Days continues.
Using the knife, Will and Lyra escape into another world. They find Mary Malone, who tells them the story of how she quit being a nun and decided that there was no God. She did these things because she wanted to be in love with someone, and she believed God and the Church denied her that.
Lyra suddenly realizes that she, too, has a house of feelings inside her waiting for her to discover. Lyra and Will fall in love. However, they can no longer be together. Each must live in his or her own world. Will breaks the knife.
Lyra promises to tell the truth about her adventures if her listeners promise to believe her. The Kingdom of Heaven is over, and Lyra and Will have been given the task of building, in their own worlds, the Republic of Heaven.
God, referred to as the Authority, was simply the first angel, formed from Dust like everyone else. He lied to all who came after him by saying he had created them. He is also referred to as the Ancient of Days. He is now very old and feeble. He disintegrates during the battle at the Clouded Mountain.
The Authority’s second in command, Metatron, is ambitious and wants to control human affairs. Metatron says that when he was a man, he was Enoch, son of Jared, and that he lived 65 years. Then the Authority took him to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Metatron’s lust for Mrs. Coulter eventually leads to his downfall. Church leaders are bloodthirsty zealots who plot to kill Lyra because of what she might do to hurt their cause.
Former nun Mary Malone says she left the Church when she realized there was no God, that Heaven is empty and that Christianity was “a powerful and convincing mistake” and part of the Church’s effort to keep people’s minds closed.
Heaven is depicted as a place where the Authority has imprisoned souls. It is dismal, and the dead are listless, restless people who are hungry for life. They are tortured by menacing birds that remind them in their sleep about the bad things they did in life.
Some men become angels when they die. Human beings (flesh) are stronger than spirit. Father Gomez believes and practices preemptive penance, which is doing penance for a sin not yet committed and receiving absolution ahead of time. In this way, he believes he can kill Lyra and remain in a state of grace.
Witches are good, imparting “wisdom” to characters. Mary Malone consults the I Ching several times. She believes Dust, which symbolizes understanding, can speak to humans through many channels. She also makes frequent comments affirming evolution.
Though Mary Malone calls her former religion Christianity, she does not speak of Jesus’ salvation or the Cross. She doesn’t believe in God, but she does believe in good and evil. She no longer believes that good or evil is found in entities outside of human beings. Lyra goes into a trance and reads the alethiometer, an instrument that gives her special knowledge about her circumstances and of what may possibly happen in the future.
Mulefas became conscious beings when a long-ago female mulefa encountered a snake. The snake told her to put her foot in the seedpod and then she would become wise. The oil from the seedpod helped the mulefa see Dust. The mulefa told others to do so also. After they did, the mulefas knew who they were, and they named everything.
The boatman who ferries the dead tells Lyra and those accompanying her that no one has gone to the land of the dead and returned. Lyra tells the ghosts in the land of the dead that when she and Will free them, their atoms will go into the air, and they will become “a part of everything.”
An angel of Lord Asriel tells Lyra that grace learned by a lifetime of thought and effort is better than grace received freely. Lyra has been told that the Kingdom of Heaven is over. People must not live as if life after death matters more than what is happening in the moment. She and others can, by being good and hardworking, build the Republic of Heaven.
The Authority, in his early life, was a controlling deceiver. In the story’s present, he is a demented, powerless old man with an army of violent, fanatical followers. Asriel had the wisdom to see through the Authority’s deception and rebel. He appears coolheaded and intelligent.
After Lyra rejects his plans to rescue her, Asriel calls Lyra a wretched child. He says he “can’t waste any more time or resources on her.” He further states that she’s just “a perfectly ordinary child, distinguished by nothing.” He later learns that Lyra is important and may be the linchpin in his rebellion against the Kingdom of Heaven.
Asriel fights with Metatron, knowing that he will probably die, but believing that Lyra will now live. Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother, manipulates everyone, whether she loves or hates them, but she does eventually agree to die for Lyra’s sake and to establish a place that is free and godless.
Adult characters, such as the ghost of Will’s father, the bear king, Mary Malone and others, urge the children to champion Asriel’s cause.
When a bear king finds the body of his dead human friend, he rips it open and feasts on it, feeling it was his friend’s final gift to him. Unprovoked, gigantic birds attack a mulefa settlement. They devour all the stored-up food, shove the mulefas’ precious seedpod wheels into the river, brutally destroy everything in the settlement and then defecate on what they just destroyed.
Opposing forces battle over Lyra in the countryside near the cave where Mrs. Coulter is keeping Lyra prisoner. Opposing armies war at the Clouded Mountain. Allies of Asriel carry poison on their spurs, which they use on several people. Balthamos, a rebel angel, fights with Father Gomez. The angel holds Father Gomez’s face under water until he dies. The lizards drag Gomez’s body to their nest where they eat it.
Lord Asriel kisses Mrs. Coulter, and Lyra and Will kiss a number of times. Their newfound love somehow brings a surge of Dust to the world around them. Will and Lyra stroke each other’s dæmons (creatures that represent a facet of each human), which is an extremely intimate expression of emotion. Two male angels, though they weren’t both male originally, display a desperate passion for one another. Mary Malone tells Lyra that after she left the Church she did not marry, but lived with a man for four years.
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