I started reading this series in 1997 and made it through the second book before I just stopped cold. I don't know why. I remember finding the stories intriguing, though not as much as the critics and superfans seemed to find them, enough so that when it came time to finish off this series, I hadn't planned on re-reading the first two books. I figured I could read summaries of the two books and get started on the third without much problem. I was proven wrong within the first 15 or so pages of the third book, when I couldn't recall enough of the details from the previous two books to get a good sense of what was happening in the third. Which brings me to book one.
By now, I think most people know the premise of the series. It's set in an alternate Europe where people live their entire lives with the presence of their dæmons, animal familiars who have a physical and emotional tie to their people. The people and their dæmons are so connected that when one dies, the other one will die, as well. Pullman makes them out to be physical manifestations of people's souls (they tend to react in ways that are indicative of their person's mood), so when children start to go missing in London, you can rest assured that it has something to do with their dæmons.
The premise is a hefty one for even a young adult novel, but this series is actually aimed toward a younger audience. While I've seen them shelved in YA sections here and there, the books are usually shelved in the juvenile sections of both libraries and bookstores, which surprises me, considering the themes and content of the books. The Harry Potter books are also considered juvenile books, though, so maybe I'm splitting hairs. The overtly religious themes just seem to be more threatening to the status quo than anything Harry Potter did (and, judging by the results I found from Googling "golden compass controversy", I'm right). Because of those thematic elements, I've tagged this as a YA book, a juvenile book, and an adult book, since most of the theme, I believe, would go over the heads of younger readers.
The story took a little while to get going, as Pullman took the time to develop Lyra, the main character, before sending her off on her journey. She's obstinate, precocious, headstrong, and willful, and she's one of the stronger protagonists I've seen in books for younger readers. She's also very principled, even if she's not one to resist lying or embellishing a story when it suits her purposes. There were times when I found her to be a little tiresome (Pullman relied on her to fill in the backstory that we already knew to characters who had to know what was going on, usually in run-on sentences that sounded like a six-year-old telling a story), but through her, Pullman conveyed some real emotion. There were some truly horrifying and heartbreaking moments that wouldn't have worked without Lyra being the character she was.
It's hard to say much about the book, since it's only a prelude to a larger story, but I look forward to reading the rest of the series. I've already begun on the second book, and so far, I have no recollection of the events at the start. It feels like reading from this point forward will be like reading the books for the first time again.