The Golden Compass is the first book in the fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials" by British author Philip Pullman. Technically, The Golden Compass is a book for children ages ten and up, but the sophistication of its themes and the complexity of its characters will appeal equally to adult readers. In fact, adults are probably better equipped to understand Pullman's underlying messages, which deal with the value of being true to one's self and the importance of challenging and questioning authority.
The Golden Compass is better written and more imaginative by far than the Harry Potter books, and it rivals or surpasses the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia books in terms of creating a fully-realized fantasy world complete with its own history, mythology, and value system. Pullman has conjured an alternative universe that is in many ways similar to our own but which follows a different set of moral and physical rules. The protagonist is a scrappy, brash, and adventurous pre-adolescent girl named Lyra Belacqua, and in Lyra's world each individual has a "daemon" or animal companion that is an outward manifestation of the soul. The relationship between a human and his or her daemon is an intimate one-- an individual is incapable of venturing more than a few yards from his daemon, and a human may die of shock if the connection between himself and his daemon is severed. A child's daemon has the power to shape shift into any animal it wishes, but as an individual reaches adulthood, the daemon will eventually settle in a particular form, for instance a monkey or a snow leopard, and this final form indicates something about the kind of adult the child has grown into. In addition to daemons, Lyra's world is peopled with armored polar bears who talk and have opposable thumbs, beautiful witches, and seafaring gypsies.
Though it's billed for children, The Golden Compass is an emotionally intense read even for adults. There's violence, particularly a vicious bear fight. The book's villains demonstrate the worst of human nature and even the heroes are tragically flawed. And the ending is heartbreaking. But the harshness and moral ambiguity of The Golden Compass mirrors the complexity and difficulties inherent in our own world.
Alternately beautiful, sad, and frightening, The Golden Compass is destined to become a classic of children's literature and a bookshelf favorite of adults, both young and old, for years to come.