Northern Lights (1995) by Phillip Pullman is the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I finished this over a week ago but didn't get a chance to write about it till now. I'm going to have to keep this post short because I just don't have time to be my usual bloated self (yay! all of you non-existent readers cry out in unison).
Northern Lights is a fantasy novel that takes place in a parallel universe that's somewhat similar to ours - technologically it's like a cross between our time and the mid 19th century. Some countries and peoples are the same, and others aren't. Slightly different words are used to describe things, such as 'anbaric' instead of 'electric'. Other major differences from our world are the presence of talking warrior polar bears, witches, and daemons. The latter are talking animal companions that every person has; the animal is an extension of a person's soul.
Within this alternate universe, the story revolves around a girl called Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra is an orphan who has lived at a college in Oxford virtually her whole life. Being tenacious and too curious for her own good, she stumbles upon something that ultimately sends her on a dangerous journey away from the relative comfort of her home. A journey that sees her teaming up with a group of Gyptians to look for a friend captured by the sinister 'Gobblers'. Lyra also learns about the mysterious 'Dust' that has the omnipotent Church worried, and acquires a strange 'truth telling' device called an alethiometer.
Northern Lights is ostensibly a children's / young adult's book, but that shouldn't put you off. Unless you're a completely cynical adult, you should be able to enjoy it. It's definitely more adult oriented than, say, the Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia. It's compulsive and I was immersed by Pullman's fantastical world. The story is fairly original and has a healthy mixture of outright fantasy, science, pseudoscience, theology, and politics layered around the genre staple concept of having a young orphan protagonist with a destiny to fulfill. Well worth a read for fantasy fans, and even if you're not, it's good enough to be worth a look-see.
I've already started on the second part of the trilogy (which takes place partly in our universe), and I can't wait to see how the story pans out.