I somehow missed the His Dark Materials series as a kid. I read (and loved) other books by Philip Pullman, namely the Sally Lockhart books. I remember a friend of mine reading His Dark Materials when we were in middle school, but somehow I never picked it up until a couple of years ago, when a kid I babysat and Anthony Cardno were reading it at the same time. I read The Golden Compass and I remember thinking it was okay, but no Harry Potter (although, what is?). So I shelved it and rented the movie when it was available and didn't bother with the rest of the series and that was that.
Until I discovered audiobooks. And also discovered that audiobooks are best with action and not overly complex writing (i.e. meant for kids and teens). A couple of months ago I decided to start the series on audiobook, and this time I was actually blown away by The Golden Compass. Underlying the adventure, there's this really interesting discussion of "dust," a sort of elementary particle recently discovered that sticks itself mostly to those with conscious thought (i.e. humans) and particularly after they hit puberty. In Lyra's world of The Golden Compass, the Church is disturbed by this and seeks to eradicate it by separating child from daemon (furry little friends that accompany people always, changing shapes until puberty when they settle into a form reflective of something about the child). Of course, Eve is blamed for the existence of dust, but what's really horrifying if the cutting. Daemons are people's souls, except outside the body and visible, and cutting them away nearly always kills the child, except supposedly it's done for their own good but also in the name of science. It's a twisted concept. The rest of the series follows Lyra through other worlds as she and many others explore the question of dust and, ultimately, try to preserve it, because it's what separates us from the animals.
Each volume in the series take it's name from a different powerful object: the golden compass is an "alethiometer," a small instrument that uses symbols to tell the truth about things and which Lyra as a child understands intuitively; the subtle knife, a two-bladed knife of which one side can cut through any substance, and the other can cut through to other worlds; and the amber spyglass, the only object which is actually built by a character, which is a sort of rough telescope that can be used to actually see dust. All powerful, but not exactly magical objects. Though they seem beyond reality (because they are), they are based on discoveries of what is true in the world Pullman has created, and they are all interesting. The spyglass is perhaps the least exciting but also the least flawed. Lyra loses her skill with the alethiometer when she hits puberty, while the knife causes spectres (evil floaty things that attack adults, who are covered in dust), and causes dust to leak away. The spyglass is lovely because it can see but not interfere, and does not require anything of the seer.
Of course, there were inevitable comparison to Harry Potter while listening to His Dark Materials. Both exist in different worlds (though I believe one of Pullman's worlds is ours), and both revolve around a child orphan at the center of some larger difficulty. However, Pullman lets his children be children. Lyra is brave and righteous and adventurous, but she is also a child that knows she can't do everything and sometimes has to rely on an adult to save her. She can provoke war, but she can't fight it on her own. Likewise, Pullman's story is a bit more real that Rowling's. While Rowling never lets Harry kill anyone (even though he does kill Quirrel, she just doesn't admit it), Will (Lyra's friend) does find that he has to kill. He is filled with remorse and wishes that he didn't have to do this, that his mother could just take care of him rather than him taking care of her, but he does kill because that is the way of war. Pullman is a bit harsher than Rowling in presenting these realities of the children's limitations and the truth of what they are forced to do, but it is a satisfying harshness and very well done.
I like the story, and I would recommend it, but I don't adore it. As the story goes on, more and more characters are introduced and they become very difficult to keep ta. Maybe it would have been easier if I'd read it on the page, but the sheer numbers of them just seemed excessive. I gave up identifying people by names and started to base it on their actions (which is probably more telling anyway) but even still it was difficult. Then, in the third book, Pullman introduces this world with animals that all have this diamond body structure (i.e. one leg each in front and back and two on the sides) and I was just like WHAT IS GOING ON?! It just seemed a bit excessive to me and kind of went beyond the parameters of the story. It didn't really seem necessary. Overall though, good story. It's the kind of thing parents and children can enjoy together, and I know that I'll be sharing it with my own kids.