The controversy about this book should have been why the publishers gave the manuscript a second glance, and why, oh why? do so many people love it. It is imaginative. That is the only positive thing I can say about it. The problems are numerous, but I want to focus on just a few, and only addressing the first book of the series:
The 'Golden Compass' itself: This is a deux ex machina that saved the author from really having to think through intriguing resolutions. Don't know what to do? Let's look at my Magic 8-ball and I'll get the right answer. Good grief; could we have added a bit of tension to that particular plot line?
The subtle racism and sexism: I would guess that Philip Pullman deliberately chose a female main character to avoid the charge of sexism. She is, however, female in word only, and is very much portrayed as a tomboy. Great. I love tomboys. I was a tomboy. But... the only other major female character is a power-hungry sadist. All the rest are portrayed as cooks or nurses. We even have a scene where the women request to be taken along on the war expedition and the men say no, we don’t need you. And at the end... the power-hungry female is left crying over her lover while he marches on to his great destiny, promising to forget her if she doesn't come with him. Good grief, again.
I would also guess that Philip Pullman made the ‘gyptian’ people an integral part of the story to convince himself that he is not racist. However, while the ‘gyptian’ people are portrayed positively, all the other foreigners come with a tinge of inferiority. Asiatics, Tartars, Africs- nothing directly stated, just always implied.
And, finally, and most importantly, the utter lack of depth. To anything. The story is shallow. (Please? More alternate universe stuff? That was great and original... 50 years ago.) The characters are not gripping. The conversations are often painful to read. And the adventures? Yawn.