Our accommodating library had the first four of the Obernewtyn Chronicles sitting on a YA shelf and they looked interesting so I checked out all of them for the rare experience of reading a series in order without gaps as the author struggled with writer’s block, etc. etc. Obernewtyn, the first story, was good. Isobelle Carmody has created a believable and ominous world that exists after some devastating event that sounds like nuclear catastrophe. Nevermind that nuclear catastrophe seems rather old-fashioned in the looming armageddon of planetary meltdown, Obernewtyn is plenty dark and creepy.
Elspeth is a Misfit, someone who might be a mutant derivative of the holocaust known as the Great White–or just a gifted person with paranormal powers and hypersensitive intuition. We are given to believe her powers are freaky but she keeps them well-hidden because discovery could mean exile or fiery death. Her brother Jes is better at masking whatever talents he has–even from Elspeth. He is favored by the Guardians and other functionaries of the authoritarian regime that runs what’s left of civilization. And it’s not too civilized. Both siblings are Orphans; their parents were incinerated for sedition.
Elspeth’s precarious existence is upended, maybe fatally, when she is marked as a Misfit and sent to Obernewtyn, a fearful place of dark legend in the mountains. She pretends to be injured by some tainted water and not a congenital Misfit but her strategy endangers her brother and his girlfriend who are left behind. And when Elspeth arrives at Obernewtyn, what she finds is more horrible and dangerous than rumor or imagination supplied.
Carmody has merged the commonplace rythms of farm life with the conventions of a prison-like boarding school and the menace of a dire plot to find a lost map that could re-awaken the terrors of the Great White. The compound and its labyrinthine estate house and impenetrable maze are straight out of classic murder mystery. The quasi-science seems a bit dated in a world where CERN announcements about finding the god particle are heralded with global champagne toasts and broadcast live worldwide. But there are strong, likable (and repulsive) characters, excellent pacing, enough surprises and decent tension. Many of those jammed together SF words like “the Beforetime” and “soldierguards” but I’m not going after them as I may resort to that hoary old trick when I ever get around to writing my own YA dystopian fiction so I will say it isn’t a problem.
It didn’t take forever to read the book, although that is not a complaint. Carmody writes fluently and her story moves well. Obernewtyn was engaging enough to keep me up until 2:30 finishing it and I think I’ll attempt the other three volumes in order to see what happens in this twisted world of blackened landscapes and snowblind mountains.
Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1 Isobelle Carmody | Random House 1987