Recommended: The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)
It took me a while to decide that I wanted to "formally" recommend this book. It's a lovely story, but it can't be read alone, and I found the sequels (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) to be somewhat disappointing. No surprise, of course: Rule Number One always applies. So I wavered back and forth, but in the end, I remembered my primary criterion for making a recommendation: that it be a story which I would feel I was poorer for not having read.
Certainly I would feel poorer for not having read this book. The charming and impudent Lyra, the devoted armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, and the steady aeronaut Lee Scoresby--these are characters without any comparison in literature. It's a delight to read this story, and the feelings between Iorek, Lee, and Lyra are an almost palpable warmth. For these characters alone I urge you to read this story.
Lyra Belacqua is, frankly, a misbehaving little imp. Her guardian, the chill Lord Asriel, leaves her to the poor tutelage of the scholars of Jordan College, while he conducts experiments into the nature of the Dust (newly-discovered rays that seem to be attracted to adult consciousness). Naturally, Lyra cannot be held in such a small confine, and in time she and her familiar leave the musty crypts of the College, to head for the far and mysterious North, under the shimmering aurora borealis.
With that I must leave you to read the story yourself, though... perhaps I can give you a little bit more. Everyone has a familiar, called a daemon. The familiars of children can change shape at will, but as they age, the familiars take on a shape that reflects their personality. (Lord Asriel's: a snow leopard.) Bears, though, have no familiars. The bears of the North make their own armour from meteoric iron, an armour that reflects their self in much the way a familiar does for people. The armoured bears (panserbjorne) have incredible dexterity, and their cunning claws can work metal more forcefully and more delicately than any smith. Above all else, though, an armoured bear is constant: fierce, loyal, and unable to be deceived.
And then, my friends, really is all I have to say about the story itself! Note that The Golden Compass is the North American name; in the UK, this novel is called Northern Lights.
Lastly, with the advent of the movie, there has been some modest controversy regarding an alleged anti-Christian perspective in His Dark Materials. I'm afraid that will be a post for another day - another day soon, I hope!.
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