I used to be a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but over the past few years I found myself getting bored with it, mostly because I was tired of the recycled plot that is used in so many series: Young, unlikely hero from humble circumstances goes on a magnificent quest to single-handedly save the world, collecting a ragtag band of sidekicks along the way and succeeding in spite of incredible odds.
However, after several years of sitting patiently on my shelf, The Golden Compass was ready to draw me back into the wonderful things that fantasy fiction has to offer. This is truly a terrific book that I am sorry I didn't pick up sooner, especially since my best friend (who is usually spot-on with her recommendations) has spoken so enthusiastically about this series. What can I say? I've got sooooo many books on that darn shelf!
Pullman has created a realistic alternate world where people are paired from birth with daemons, small familiar spirits which take the form of animals; where the arctic wastes are inhabited by large, sentient white bears with Scandinavian names; where scientists vie with theologists to determine the truth about a mysterious elementary substance called Dust, which appears to emanate from the Aurora Borealis.
The protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, is a scruffy but keenly intelligent child, who is being raised by academics at Oxford University and believes herself to be an orphan. Suddenly Lyra finds herself taken away from the college by a beautiful woman who casts a spell over her, and she is swept up into a series of events that... you guessed it... will help her to single-handedly save the world against remarkable odds. Philip Pullman did a great job setting up the story in a way that made me want to keep reading, so that once the action really got going I found it hard to stop reading. I don't want to give anything away so I won't say much about what happens, but let me just say that this book has one of the most intense cliffhanger endings I've ever come across, so if you decide to give it a try make sure you have the second book in the series (The Subtle Knife) close at hand.