I finally finished reading His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (see here also). These are my own short summaries and I am trying not to give too much away for those who are/want to read them.
The first book The Golden Compass was by far the best.
The setting is a world like ours, but still different. Something seem antiquated and others are still very modern. Children across the land are being kidnapped and when Lyra's best friend Roger goes missing she's determined to rescue him. This takes her on a grand adventure from her home into the land of witches and as far as the arctic. She gets caught up in all kinds of intrigue - political, scientific, and religious.
The second book The Subtle Knife was interesting, but not as good as the first, and seemed only to exist in order to a) introduce more characters and b) shuffle them around to get them into place for the culmination of book 3.
Doorways to other worlds, some near mirrors to Lyra's and others amazingly different begin to be found. Lyra encounters Will, a boy from our world, and the adventure begun in the Golden Compass continues for the both of them. The philosophy of good, evil, god and temptation deepens and expands as Lyra and Will begin to learn more about the causes behind the events that unfurled in book one.
The third book The Amber Spyglass was the longest and the most convoluted. I think at this point Pullman was trying to put too much into this final installation with out paying much attention to what he had set up previously.
Lord Asriel is taking on the Authority and is calling on some very mighty powers to do so. Creatures from across many worlds are joining sides in what is sure to be a cosmically huge war. Lyra and Will are destined to play an important role, but have their own important agenda which will take them to the World of the Dead and back regardless of the consequences.
I loved Pullman's ideas of multiple worlds, uncountable numbers of worlds really. Each one created every moment. The idea being that in one world Lyra decides to hide in a room in which she is forbidden to go (the very opening scene of book one), but at the moment she decides to do this a new world is created in which that Lyra chooses a different route. In this way millions of worlds are always being created and they exist right on top of each other in the same space and time, never aware and never matching up exactly. The end of the first book introduces us to the concept and the second book gives the characters a way to move between worlds (this is how Will from our world and Lyra meet). In book 3 we start seeing worlds that barely resemble ours at all because thousands of years ago evolution took a different turn creating an Earth that we might not recogognize.
In Lyra's world each person is accompanied by a daemon. It is difficult to explain what a daemon is because Pullman illustrates it through action and discourse rather than a straightforward "telling." Humans and Daemon's are connected they can not be very far distances from each other with out causing pain or death. In effect, the daemon is a part of a person just inhabiting a separate body. The form of a daemon can tell you about the person - a sailor may have a dolphin or gull daemon, a servant a dog, a spy may have a very unobtrusive, small or easily hidden daemon. Until one reaches adolescence the daemon can change form, but upon adulthood it "settles" on a single form. This prompts the beginning, in the first book, of the discussions of innocence, sin, and temptation which is wrapped up in the transition of childhood into adolescence and the beginnings of adulthood.
All in all Pullman created both a fun and adventurous story while filling it with depth. I think he inevitably set his eyes a little too far and tried to cram too much in the third book and leaving the second one a little mundane.
From Here Down -- spoiler warning, major plot points in all 3 books revealed - read at your own risk
Some of the very philosophical aspects:
Pullman delves into some very interesting topics regarding religion, temptation, and the nature of growing up. Particles referred to as Dust are discovered by scientists in Lyra's world (called Shadows or negative particles in our world) and it is further revealed that Dust is attracted more to adults than pre-adolescent children. In Lyra's world the Church decides that this is evidence of original sin. If they can some how destroy that which attracts Dust to adults they can somehow eliminate sin or temptation. Through out the three books it is revealed to the readers that it is not sin but consciousness (or wisdom/knowledge) that Dust is attracted to. Until humanity became aware of itself, was able to create, to make and use tools Dust did not settle on us. While Dust is attracted to our mature consciousness, humanity's works -tools, art, science etc- creates more Dust creating a symbiotic relationship which we find out in the 3rd book is in peril. This goes interestingly with story of the Garden of Eden, and Pullman makes the connection by putting Lyra at the heart of a prophesy in which she plays the part of Eve, it was after eating the Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve became aware of themselves and their nakedness. The character of Mary Malone (purposely an ex-nun) is also cast in the prophesy as the serpent. She is supposed to play the tempter to make sure that Lyra chooses knowledge and maturity in order to assure the continued existence of Dust. Too bad Pullman seems to have forgot by book 3 that Mary was supposed to play the serpent, because she seems to play almost no role in the temptation at all. The parallel to the garden of Eden goes a little to far, when towards the end of book 3, Lyra and Will searching for their daemons find a garden spot and realize that they have come to love each other. Lyra offers him a piece of fruit after she takes a bite of it and they find themselves kissing passionately.
Pullman also does a lot with religion in these novels. In the second book we find out that all of Lord Asriel's actions in the first book had little to do with Dust and were really the first steps to launching an all out war on God (the Authority). Pullman's take on God being the first angel and therefore unfathomably old to the point where he is beyond frail and nearly unaware of himself and his surroundings. God hid himself away in a fortress of sorts and all of his power has been usurped by another angel. In order to protect God in his fragile state he is sealed in an unbreakable glass carriage which during the war is shot down while being evacuated by angels. God trapped inside is saved by Lyra and Will, but is so frail that just stepping out into normal air allows him to come apart (like angels and ghosts do when dying or stepping out into a real world) and he shows signs of pure happiness when it happens. The powerful angel who took over for god is brought down by his own envy of humanity and he too dies. It is the ultimate statement of "God is Dead." And yet the Church and all of it's different branches continue to go on functioning. I think that Pullman gives us very weighty food for thought on the nature of religious organizations.