Perhaps the most important, found details of the novel are these: it is set in a world that resembles ours, but is not ours (it opens in Oxford, England, but in a strange hybrid of "the olden days" and the future); all the people in this world have a personal daemon, in the shape of an animal, that is both connected to them and separate - essentially, the daemon reflects a person's true nature, and often the person and daemon consider themselves a "we" or an "us," rather than an "I."
So, Lyra is brought up at Oxford by the Scholars. She's about 11 when the story begins and spends most of her time playing with the children of the servants of Jordan College. Although she's never shown much interest in school, when she overhears her uncle, Lord Asriel, telling the explorers about his travels to the far North, and the Dust he observes there, and the city that's visible in the sky through the Northern Lights, her curiosity is piqued. Of course, no one will answer her questions, but when children start disappearing in her city (taken by "the Gobblers" of unknown origin) and her best friend goes missing, she gets distracted. Especially when the beautiful and enchanting Mrs. Coulter (whose daemon is a golden monkey) comes to the college and offers to take Lyra to London.
Before she leaves the college, though, the Master takes Lyra aside and gives her an alethiometer (a truth teller, shaped a bit like a compass) and tells her to keep it safely hidden from Mrs. Coulter. And then off she goes, into the glitzy world of London. Soon, though, the shine wears off and Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is actually in charge of the Gobblers and therefore the disappearance of all the children. Lyra, being rather headstrong and also afraid, runs away.
There is too much in this story to summarize with any kind of brevity, but Lyra ends up heading North with a boatload of gyptians (who live on river boats in England) to find the missing children and (from Lyra's side) rescure Lord Asriel, who is imprisoned in the land of the armoured bears. She has figured out how to read the alethiometer, which means she can ask it questions and get honest answers, which proves invaluable on the voyage. After several twists and turns - which involves saving an armoured bear from captivity - Lyra gets to the Gobblers' station and discovers what they're doing. At the order of the Magesterium (the church), children are having their daemons cut from them. Most children die from this procedure.
In the world of the novel, it's a completely barbaric procedure. In theory, it's done to protect the children from Dust, which attaches itself to adults but not pre-pubescent children. The church sees Dust as original sin, and if children can be protected from it, they need never grow up. Cutting the daemons from these children is kind of like castration, only worse.
There is a great side-narrative in Svalbard, wherein Lyra returns Iorek Byrnison (the armoured bear) to his rightful place as king of the bears. But it's so intricately written that it would take me ages to pull it apart. However, once in Svalbard, Lyra hurries to find Lord Asriel - who she has learned is actually her father, with the evil Mrs. Coulter being her mother - and then discovers that the man she idolized may not be as good as she thought. He's as concerned about Dust as Mrs. Coulter, but instead of simply "protecting" children from it, he wants to destroy it at its source, to the complete dismay of Lyra.
This is the first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, so it ends with a suitable cliffhanger to encourage readers to pick up the next book in the series.
When it was originally published, and then again when it was made into a truly awful movie, The Golden Compass created a huge amount of controversy. It is pretty anti-organized religion, and especially the church's way of making unilateral decisions. But in that way, the novel seems to be more against the kind of power we allow our authorities to wield, because in the story, the church is both religion and, essentially, the ruling power.
It isn't a preachy book, though. Rather, it's an adventure story in the tradition of great adventure. Sure there's a moralistic tint (although, not in the usual way, since this is against the usual bearers of morals) and a large, complex enemy, but there's also fantastic characters and well-developed sub-plots. It isn't a difficult read, but it's enjoyable and rewarding nonetheless.
The Golden Compass may be set, for the most part, in the Arctic, but it has all the best ingredients of a summer read. It's fast-paced, absorbing and intelligent. And when you're finished it, Pullman has already provided you with two more books to follow up with.
The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
First published in 1995 (cover image shown from Yearling edition)