Lyra is content to run wild among the scholars of Jordan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold, far North, young Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.
That doesn't tell you a lot, so here's a bit more. First, the setting is a parallel universe to ours so while places and customs feel familiar, you can't assume that they are the same. Children are disappearing, being taken North by the Gobblers. The rumor is that they're killed. When one of Lyra's friends disappears, she decides to go after him but she is temporarily distracted by Mrs. Coulter, who at first seems sweet and nice, but she hides some really dark secrets.
Escaping from the Gobblers herself, Lyra travels North with the Gyptians and others, looking for the missing children. She has a compass called an aletheiometer, which lets her see the truth of things and predict what will happen. Through the use of this compass and her own courage and determination, Lyra eventually discovers the secret of the Gobblers and what they're doing with the children, but not why (at least, not in this book).
I would rate this book as PG-14, meaning absolutely not for children under 14. I would also suggest that parents read this book before giving it to their children or letting them see the movie. The book is very dark and brutal. There is some mild swearing. There is violence against children—kidnapping, torture, and one more thing that I won't tell you because it's integral to the secret of the book. It wouldn't, as in couldn't, happen in our universe because we don't have daemon familiars, but the terror of the children and the shock of this abuse is vividly described. There is a war going on, attempted killings, and a blow-by-blow, descriptive fight to the death between bears that seem more human than not.
The book is written in a very slow and "vintage" style, not the fast-paced, high action style we expect in todays YA fantasy novels. It takes a while to get into it, but once you recognize the pace and adjust your expectations the story moves quite well. The characters are interesting. I love Lyra. She reminds me of a mix between my daughters, when they were younger. I love the dialogue, the word choices, the sentence structure. Setting aside the darkness of the storyline, the writing itself is intriguing and fun.
The plot moves along in a believable way, until the very end (chapter 21), when the main character starts quoting parallel universe scripture and goes off on an "original sin" tangent that turns out to be a major motivator for the story. What?! This was, perhaps, the most disturbing part for me. I don't want my theology messed with. But aside from that, it's such a radical departure from the rest of the book that I just didn't buy it. There was no hint that this was coming. I felt like either the author wasn't quite sure where they were going or how to explain the mysterious Dust so they threw in religion; or that he purposely manipulated us through an otherwise good story just so he could preach nonsense to us at the end.
Up until chapter 21, I would have recommended this book to adults who like fantasy, with the strong disclaimer that it needs parental approval before children and teens read it. But after chapter 21, where I felt the plot fell to pieces, I'd say check it out from the library if you really want to read it, but expect to be disappointed in the ending.
Will I read the remainder of the series? I have to as part of my commitment to a new book review blog that will be launching in September—I'm the YA & fantasy reviewer (so I'd have to read it under either category). But if I didn't have to, no, I probably wouldn't.
Rating: 3.....................BUY NOW