Cannonball Read IV: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Everyone knows this one already, right? It's the first in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and a YA fantasy classic. The story follows Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, as they travel to the North from a mystical version of Oxford, England. Her party's goal is to rescue kidnapped children from the hands of the Oblation Board, which uses the children for horrifying metaphysical experiments. Lyra has a separate mission to rescue Lord Asriel, an imprisoned Scholar studying the properties of an elementary particle called Dust, and she is assisted by a clan of witches, a Texan aeronaut, and a giant fighting armored polar bear named Iorek Byrinson. Unbeknownst to Lyca, she has an all-important role to play in a great war allegedly involving heaven and any number of interwoven worlds on Earth.
This is one of my favorite books. The first time I read it, I was much younger, and I thought it was the most magical book. Reading it again now, my appreciation for some of the scientific logic is enhanced, and I benefit from a more mature understanding of the political machinations of the powers in the world.
Lyra herself is a fascinating character. She's intelligent but not always thoughtful, though she learns from her mistakes and benefits from growing wisdom. She's a little brash and impulsive, but endlessly loyal. Her daemon, the external representation of her soul, is also adventurous and sharp, but he also is a bit more ponderous and collected and sometimes saves Lyra from jumping too hastily into poorly-evaluated situations. The other cool thing about Lyra -- as a youngish girl reading this novel for the first time -- is that she's a GIRL. She's the young female protagonist I always wanted: imperfect, but ultimately a well-rounded individual with obvious personality and depth, who is worthy of the tasks presented to her and didn't always need rescuing.
So, everyone should read this book. It's classic fantasy, well-written both in plot and characterization.