In this very well-written book, children are disappearing, so 11-year old Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, embark on a journey to discover what has been happening to them and to help save her friends. Little does she know that she plays a hugely important part in an event that must occur later. Along with her dæmon, an animal spirit that is as much a part of her as our hearts are a part of us, she lives at the religious Jordan College. While at the college, she snuck in to a room forbidden to all except the college elders, and while there she discovers the college headmaster trying to poison a drink that is for her uncle, Lord Asriel. She warns him about it so he allows her to remain in the room, in hiding, while he gives a presentation to the other college leaders, during which he reveals the existence of a mysterious substance called Dust. Soon after, she discovers that children are disappearing, apparently being taken by "Gobblers", mysterious people who take them away for some strange experimentation. She also finds out that her uncle has been captured and is being held at Svalbard, a desolate area controlled by panserbjorn, armored polar bears. She leaves to live with Mrs. Coulter, a cold but beautiful and charismatic leader of a religious organization known as the General Oblation Board. Before she leaves, the college headmaster gives her a mysterious instrument called an alethiometer, which can supposedly be used to find things out, although no one knows how to use it or what all the symbols on the face mean. When Mrs. Coulter begins to treat her badly while at her house in London, Lyra runs away and encounters some gyptians, nomadic merchant people who live on boats in the rivers and seas. With them she heads north to rescue the missing children and her uncle.
This book is a richly written story with lots of details. It is a fantasy story set in a world like ours in many ways, but very different in others. Some differences are minor; instead of electricity, they use something called "anbaric" power, which could just as easily have been called electricity. Other differences are major; each person has an animal spirit attached to them that goes with them and can talk to them. In children, the animal spirit, a dæmon, can change form whenever it wants or needs. For example, Pantalaimon, Lyra's dæmon, can change into a moth to hide from others, or an owl when he needs to fly high and see far in the night, or a wildcat if he needs to protect Lyra. In this story, these creatures prove to be very important indeed. Like I said, this book is well-written and it is very easy to imagine the places where it takes place. Unfortunately, like many fantasy stories written for older readers (and adults), much of the story centers on politics. I HATE STORIES ABOUT POLITICS! Excuse me for yelling, please. I was more than a little disappointed by the story. I wanted there to be more about relationship. There was quite a bit about Lyra and her dæmon, but I wasn't moved by that so much. Fortunately, the story did pick up quite a bit toward the end with a lot of things happening fairly quickly. Up until the last 50 pages or so, there was a lot of traveling and a lot of explaining, which, to me, kill a narrative. But at the end, it got pretty exciting, and it actually ended with me kind of wanting to read the next book. Yes, just like a lot of fantasy novels, this is just one part of a much bigger story. Too bad I didn't like it enough to actually go out an get the second book. Yet.
Try this book if you are a more experienced reader who can tackle things like The Lord of the Rings. Otherwise, be wary.