A 'dusty' otherworldly quest

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October - a month of dark nights, scary masks, and wild imaginings - is a fitting backdrop for the arrival of Philip Pullman's final volume of "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Fans who endured the three-year wait for "The Amber Spyglass" will be rewarded once more by powerful writing, vivid descriptions, and realistic action. This 500-pager is packed with the struggles between good and evil, realizations both true and painful, and an almost-tangible sense of otherworldliness. Its myriad twisting and intertwining plots and its emotional roller coaster make it an exhausting yet exhilarating read.

Once again, Lyra and her spirit daemon, Pantalaimon, lead the action. Familiar characters appear: authoritative Lord Astriel, captivating Mrs. Coulter, and mighty Iroek Byrnison, the armored polar bear. But Lyra's friend Will takes on increasing importance (he's the partner she picked up in "The Subtle Knife," the second book in the trilogy which began with "The Golden Compass").

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Together they avoid death and other dangers by traveling into different worlds through windows cut out by the supernatural blade. They journey to the world of the dead, where there are promises to keep and amends to make. The trip is torturous, and the destination is as bleak as anything imaginable.

Although the expedition is ultimately successful, the cost is much higher than the travelers expect.

Their journey takes place as a full-blown religious war is ready to rage. Traditional church doctrine, angels, prophecy, parallel universes, witches, ghosts, specters, and humans are all tangled in the complex action and brutal battles.

Central to this conflict is "Dust" and what various characters have learned about the swirling golden particles that hold the secrets of life.

Various questions, deceptions, and discoveries challenge readers to grapple with their own ideas of God, religion, life, love, and death.

Traditionally, publishers position protagonists of young adult novels as slightly older than the intended reading audience, but almost-13-year-old Lyra should not necessarily set the readership age. Some disturbing images and mature themes may make this book more appropriate for older readers.

Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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