In The Golden Compass, Lyra Belacqua is a young girl living at Jordan College, Oxford. A ward of her distant uncle, Lord Asriel, she is rather absently looked after by the staff and scholars, but prefers to spend her time roughhousing with the local urchins. This is not our Oxford, but one in a parallel world, which seems to be a cross between steampunk and Gormenghast. One where everyone has a personal daemon, a shape-shifting spirit who never strays more than a few feet from its human.
Boys and girls are disappearing all around Britain, taken by the Gobblers, a shadowy Church-affiliated organization run by the evil Mrs. Coulter. The Church is obsessed with the mysterious Dust, which they believe to be the cause of Original Sin. When her best friend is snatched, Lyra goes on a quest to the Arctic in the company of the gyptians, where she finds armored bears and witches. The book ends when Lord Asriel tears a rift into another world, and Lyra stumbles through with her daemon, Pantalaimon.
The second book, The Subtle Knife, introduces a second lead character, Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our world. He stumbles through a portal into the world of Cittàgazze, where he meets Lyra and becomes the bearer of a knife, which can cut through the barriers between worlds. Lord Asriel has launched a crusade to bring down the Authority, the ruler of Heaven. Renegade angels and other forces are trying to get Will and Lyra to bring the knife to Asriel.
The Amber Spyglass brings in a third major character, Dr. Mary Malone, a scientist from our Oxford who has fallen into another world, where she studies Dust. Lyra and Will travel to the land of the Dead to release ghosts from their captivity, and they fall in love. Asriel and his allies launch their attack on the Authority.
I got the first book from the library and I loved it so much that I went out and bought the entire trilogy. The series is marketed towards young adults, but is also popular among adults.
The Golden Compass is a first-rate story that was hard to put down. I was thorougly caught up in it. Lyra is not particularly bright, but she is brave, stubborn, and lucky, and you wish her well. Pullman builds fascinating worlds: the daemons are a novel invention.
I thought the second book was a little weaker. Pullman started telling the story from a number of viewpoints, a practice he exacerbated in the third book, which weakened his control of the story. Even so, he brings the trilogy to a powerful, bittersweet ending.
It’s not apparent in the first book, but Pullman is retelling Milton’s Paradise Lost and he’s not on the side of God. Asriel is as proud as Lucifer, and the ruler of Heaven is unworthy. This is a theme sure to enrage many Christians and I’m surprised that I’ve heard so little about it, as the books have sold very well.
The Golden Compass has been made into a movie, which is to be released at Christmas.
More background material: His Dark Materials (Wikipedia), Srafopedia (HDM encyclopedia), and Bridge to the Stars (fan site).