I'm not really sure how this series came to be marketed towards kids and middle grade readers. It's not that younger readers can't enjoy it (it's a great adventure story, and I loved it when I was little), but the allegorical elements and critiques of organized religion will go completely over kids' heads. The story is vibrant and evocative and enduring, but there is so much more depth that reveals itself to older readers. The General Oblation Board's experiments on children echoes the Holocaust, residential schools, and many other atrocities sanctioned by and committed in the name of the Church.
This series as a whole and this book in particular have such incredible emotional depth: there is endless fun to be had in the adventure, but the despair and sorrow Pullman takes the story to is almost unparalleled. I can't imagine how literature could be more desperately emotionally affecting than the discovery of the dæmon-less Tony, or Roger's death, or so many other moments in the other two books.
Seriously a remarkable novel in a remarkable series. Complex and affecting beyond words.
Original review, July 18/13:
The last time I read this book I must have been no more than eleven or twelve, which means that I certainly didn't have a terribly firm grasp of its complexity. It was more of an adventure story to me than anything else. This time around, I can really appreciate the nuances and less evident messages.
I've been meaning to reread this series for years. I finally forced myself to do it by bringing it home with me for the summer, along with only two other books. I blasted through the first in the series, which is a solid 400 pages, in two days - extremely fast when you consider that I've been averaging about 7-10 days for the ASoIaF books. It's just compulsively readable without sacrificing any quality. It's emotionally impactful, exciting, complex, interesting, and insightful. The characters are vivid, the premise unique, and the plot completely compelling. It's even better knowing what the latter two books have in store, because while the first book stands on its own as a remarkable piece of literature, it is really building up to something more.
I'm not exactly sure when I'll tackle The Subtle Knife; my top priority is ASoIaF, and I don't know if I'll finish that series by the time summer is over what with my job starting on Monday. However, I do intend to read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass as soon as possible, and I look forward to it immensely.