The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials Trilogy (which The Golden Compass starts) are a few of my all time favorite books. Philip Pullman pens these novels in such a way that your thought process teeters along the line of reality, philosophy, and pure fantasy/science fiction. Recently, I reread The Golden Compass (not long after finishing The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) and was once again reminded of why this book is so good.
The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl living amongst the bookish scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, England, in a world utterly unlike our own, but eerily similar, where the people are just like us, but different, with their very souls bared for all to see (daemons) in the form of animals. One evening, after sneaking into a gathering only meant for the top mean of the college (where her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, was speaking), she hears of the North, fierce panserbjorne and Dust. Thus begins Lyra's journey. Children are being kidnapped for unknown purposes. Witches are aflight, preparing for war. Lyra's best friend is missing and she has made it her mission to find him.
Pullman manages to mix a gripping adventure story with a searing critique of organized religion (or at least the beginning of one), a unique look at childhood, innocence, the psychology and biology of growing up and how that effects society. He really manages to capture what Lyra is--a little girl and a born liar and actress. So often authors who write from the perspective of children sound ridiculous, but Pullman has shaped a serious but entirely childlike little girl. And he easily slips from character to character, making each pitch-perfect. You hear Lee Scoresby's Texas lilt and feel the rumble in Iorek Byrnison's throat. And there is a slight chill that runs up your spine each time Pullman introduces the completely seductive and fairly evil character of Mrs. Coulter.
What's more, the book puts forth, in a really interesting way, the idea of soul and faith and the purpose of religion in society. Pullman very subtly calls institutions in society into question by looking at certain things through the lens of an alternate universe and the eyes of a child. The book (and the sequels) allow for a number of questions that beg for discussion and thought.
Comparable Reads: I think C.S. Lewis' Narnia books offer a really great counterpoint to The Golden Compass (and subsequent books), particularly if you're interested in the concept of religion, organized and otherwise, and children's place within it, but you must read with an open mind. Also, A Wrinkle in Time has similar qualities (alternate universes, fantasy/sci-fi) and is a very fun read, though old school.
Who is this book for?: While it's typically marketed as a YA book (and it certainly has YA elements), it is a novel that children and adults can both enjoy. It must be read with an open mind, I believe, because Pullman does go out of his way to challenge the reader's beliefs (if those beliefs align with Christianity), particularly in the two books after "Compass." I think parents and teachers who have children/students who are reading this book should be prepared to potentially have a discussion regarding the books, because there is some serious religion and philosophy discussed within the pages.