Lyra is an orphaned girl who has been living at Oxford College for as far back as she can remember. The book begins as she is surreptitiously making her way to a forbidden room, accompanied by her daemon Pantalaimon. In this world, which closely resembles our own, some time in the late 19th century, everyone has a personal daemon—a manifestation of the soul—which takes the shape of an animal and accompanies it’s human everywhere. Lyra and Pan hide in a cupboard to list to her uncle’s presentation, he is an explorer just returned from the Arctic North where he has discovered the physical manifestation of a mysterious substance called Dust. There are children all over England going missing and the rumour is that they are taken by the ‘Gobblers’ who are known to perform mysterious and gruesome experiments on them. When Lyra’s close friend Roger disappears, she vows to find him and rescue him, along with all the other missing children, said to be held by the Gobblers (or ‘General Oblation Board’) at a research facility in the North. Along the way, we meet the beautiful and treacherous Mrs. Coulter and her golden monkey daemon, both of whom are determined to keep a tight control over Lyra and Pan when she is taken on as Mrs. Coulter’s apprentice. In this wonderful fantasy world, there are brilliantly evil people, and there are heroes you just want to cheer on. There are boat people called gyptians, armoured talking bears, there are good witches and evil witches and zeppelins an air balloon, and of course, there is the Golden Compass—or ‘alethiometer’, a rare instrument which can answer any question, as long as one knows how to decipher it’s mysterious symbols as only our young heroine can—which Lyra must keep from falling into the wrong hands.
I saw the movie version of this story a couple of years ago and thought it was wonderful, and I absolutely loved this book, ostensibly geared towards children, but with a level of sophistication to keep adults wanting more. What with a great adventure filled with plenty of thrills and hurdles, and philosophical matters to ponder—to do with the nature of the human soul and the role that religion plays in our search for greater understanding—there is plenty to sink one’s teeth into. I didn’t want this magnificent tale to end, but lucky for me, there are two more volumes in the trilogy still to discover. Once that’s done, I’ll probably want to read them all over again.