I had completely missed out on this series, and if it hadn't been for the movie The Golden Compass and the resulting review in The Atlantic, I would have probably gone on with my life without ever getting to meet Mr. Pullman's writing.
I read the trilogy in Hawai`i, on my last trip. As a matter of fact, I spent most of my daylight time reading the three volumes, and I sincerely regret not having made more of it. Sure, the books are a good read, but they are after all for a young audience, and it shows.
At first, I was taken a little aback by the incongruence between the review and the first chapters: where the review promised a mastodon of convicted atheism, the book read more like any other adventure stories written for early teenagers. It goes into the same category as the Narnia series (which the review references) or the Harry Potter books. It's an adventure story that plays in an unreal world.
I haven't read Narnia, nor do I really plan to – the writing is probably too similar to the other two series I indeed read. The reviewer in The Atlantic, though, reported that Christians everywhere in this country were going to boycott the movie as the anti-Narnia, the book in which atheism is made to look like the main option for this and any other world.
To be fair to Mr. Pullman, the god he envisions is decidedly not the creator of the universe, but a sad usurper that will die an unremarkable death in the confines of the last volume. At the same time, the book makes the church (the Catholic Church, no less) look really bad, as they knowingly stick with the old guy, despite evidence he is not the Real God.
Ah, what can I say? The book is a fascinating read for a teenager. I am absolutely certain that some teenager somewhere is going to take this as the absolute truth. But I find the whole premise a bit silly, in that it needs to reconcile eternal truth with the plot of an adventure novel.
By that I mean that the pacing and arc of an epic are pre-defined and rigid: you need the Heroes, the Event that split the Heroes apart, the Bad Guy, the Helpful Helper, and the Struggle, and there you go, you've got your recipe for epic. Pullman's books are just like that, but that interferes with a story that wants to be about something bigger.
To make things worse, the language is odd. Maybe it's just British odd, and the Brits love it that way, but I cannot but marvel at the omnipresent flights of sentimentality, where one or the other of the protagonists throws him- or herself at the other, always seeming to shout: "Dear!"
All in all, a good read for a young person with an open mind, but not anything I am lusting to read again.