Phillip Pullman's "Dark Materials" triology are the kind of books that you simply must read if you are a science fiction fan, or if you just like well-written books... You don't have to be a teenager to enjoy them, but you need to have a big imagination in order to thoroughly enjoy them. If that is the case, go on reading this review...
The "Dark Materials" triology takes place in a world similar to our own, that is at the same time very different. In that world, each person's soul can be seen, is called a "daemon" and takes the form of an animal. The daemons of children change their appearance constantly, but once the children become adults, their daemons choose only one form. Pullman's alternate world has other differences, too, for example the fact that it has different kinds of magic, and that witches and armored bears coexist with human beings. The result is that the world he builds is exotic, strange but at the same time familiar.
On the negative side, the writer also plays with an institution we are familiar with, the Church, using its name but leaving behind its essence, in order to talk about a world ruled by tyrannical ecclesiastical authorities. I didn't like that, and probably you won't like it either, but keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, and as such, its purpose is to entertain, not to be taken seriously. All the same, if you think your sensibilities will be offended, or that you won't be able to separate reality from fiction, don't buy this book. You will be losing a lot, though.
Regarding the plot of these books, the main character is an orphan girl named Lyra, that lives in the Jordan College of Oxford. Her life involves no more responsabilities than playing in the grounds (and roofs!) of the College, and making mischief with her friend Roger and her daemon, Pantalaimon. But all changes when Lyra hides in a closet and hears her uncle, Lord Asriel, talk about some weird things that are happening in the North Pole to some scholars. Lyra wants to go there with him, but is not allowed to do so. However, soon afterwards her dear friend Roger and many other children disappear, and when all clues point out to the North Pole, Lyra will start a journey to rescue them. That journey will take her to many places, allow her to meet lots of different people, and help her to discover new things about herself and others. If you want to share all that with Lyra and Pantalaimon, just read this book :)
After reading "The golden compass", I thought that the triology was promising. However, it was only when I finished the last book in the "Dark Materials" series that I realized why this triology has such a reputation as a masterpiece of science fiction. On the whole, I think that this box set is a treat teenagers and adults will enjoy, but I believe it may be too complicated and somber at times for young children. Provided you take that opinion and my previous comments into account, recommended...
PS: A film based on the first book of this triology is to be released in late 2007. It is directed by Chris Weitz, and stars Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. So... you better start reading now, if you want to read the books before watching the movie :)