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This is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy (before The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass).
Set at the turn of the twentieth century in an alternate Europe where everyone is inseparable from their animal daemons, shape-changers that only settle at puberty, this is the story of Lyra Belacqua (and her daemon Pantalaimon), a teenage orphan girl living in Oxford College in charge of her powerful uncle, Lord Asriel.
Being a curious little girl, Lyra hears lots of gossip in the old halls. Some, about Dust, as well as pictures of a mysterious floating city in the aurora, make her dream of travelling North on one of her uncle's expeditions. But soon she also hears rumours of children, mainly from Gyptian families, who have started to mysteriously disappear, lured and captured by what people call the "Gobblers".
And when her playmate Roger the kitchen boy is kidnapped, she's desperate. But at the same time arrives Mrs. Coulter, an elegant and fascinatingly intelligent woman, who wants to take Lyra to her school in London. Believing that she'll learn more about Dust and maybe travel North with her, she soon becomes Mrs. Coulter's protégée. Until she realizes that the woman is none other than the head of the General Oblation Board of London, in other words the "Gobblers", and runs away.
The rest of the story tells how Lyra finally travels to Lapland, setting out in search of Roger and the other missing children with the help of the Gyptians, with whom she first takes refuge, of Panserborne (armoured bears) and witch-queens, and of the alethiometer, a strange compass-like device that reveals the truth to anyone who can read it, which the Master of Oxford College secretly gave her just before she left. Little by little, she'll become caught up in the adults' intricate powerplay.
I liked Northern Lights (US title: The Golden Compass), and found it quite pleasant to read, but I wasn't overly captivated by it. I was moved by Lyra's friendship with Iorek Byrnison, an exiled Panserborne, and deeply shocked, appalled, when I discovered what the "Gobblers" do to the snatched children, but that's about it. Lyra's a tad too temerarious and quick-witted, and in the end, I found her hardly believable. I'm very fond of Pantalaimon though.