This is the first part of one of the great fantasy series. I read this first when it had been assigned to one of my daughters in elementary school, then read it again in 2007. It seemed even better the second time around.
In crude form, it is a road-trip of self-discovery, a coming of age for the young Lyra. But this series offers so much more than that. It speaks to spirituality, religion, magic, possibility, the role and limits of authority, the nature of the soul. I expect it goes over the heads of most young readers, but merits attention from young and adult alike. The main characters are well drawn, and while some of the evil-doers may be cartoonish, characterization remains a strength here. One can feel engaged with the people here, root for them wonder as they do at the mysteries presented, weep with their failures and cheer at their conquests. Top-notch, great, great stuff.