This is what teens should be reading. Harry Potter is cute and fun, but ultimately too childish. Take Twilight and burn it, or use it as a doorstop. It's worthless. Let's get young people to read His Dark Materials, and let them find out what really great fantasy literature is all about.
His Dark Materials is a trilogy of books that take place in a number of worlds parallel to our own. In one of these worlds (the main setting for The Golden Compass, each human is accompanied by a daemon, basically a representation of their souls in the form of an animal. Children's daemons are constantly changing to fit their moods. Once they reach adulthood, however, the daemons settle into a permanent shape that reflects what the people are inside. It's a completely alien concept at first, but Pullman does a fantastic job of explaining the link between humans and daemons, and some of the book's most moving moments come when that relationship comes into danger.
This world is ruled by an all powerful organization called The Magisterium, a stand-in for the Catholic Church. Pullman doesn't shy away from the comparisons and his criticism of the Church. In fact, the entire plot is driven by the Magisterium's desire to suppress what they call heretical plots that would essentially strip it of its power. The Oblation Board, part of the Magisterium, is conducting some sort of secret experiment in the Northern areas of the world, and the bulk of the book is spent with the characters trying to find out what it is.
Into this complicated and dark plot comes Lyra Belacqua, the main character of the book. She's a young girl who, largely by accident, is thrown into a mystery that involves the kidnapping of children, some of them her friends. Lyra is an interesting and complex character, not your usual children's book heroine. She's stubborn and arrogant, a natural leader and an expert liar, which saves her from a lot of trouble. Sometimes she's even a little unlikable, but I think it helps to see that this isn't a perfect little girl. She's abrasive, but that helps her survive situations that others wouldn't.
So Lyra, curious and determined, is taken along on some pretty scary adventures as she works to solve the mystery of the disappearing children. Pullman creates a dark, dangerous world full of monsters and magical creatures; the armored bears in particular have to be some of the most amazing things I've ever read about..
The book ends in a cliffhanger after a series of nonstop battles and confrontations--it was pretty damn hard to put down the book at any moment. It's fast-paced and exciting, sometimes downright creepy and disturbing. It's not a book for really young children, but I think anyone over the age of 16 would enjoy it. The Church criticism would perhaps be lost to a young audience, but it's another way for adults to enjoy the book. Pullman is obviously going for controversy here, and some people might be turned off by his constant cries of 'the church is evil! the church is evil!'. However, I think it would be unfair to dismiss such a talented and imaginative writer just because he's critical and controversial; it's too good and too rich a story. It's a great book, really, and I'm starting on the next one (The Subtle Knife) just as soon as I post this.
Done with another 5K Challenge! The best of the five? I'd have to say this one and "Teacher Man". Two very, very different books, but both from two wonderful writers. Everyone should read them