Isobelle Carmody

The Obernewtyn Chronicles, book 1

Penguin (1987)

ISBN: 9780375857676

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in December 2006)

I love post-apocalyptic fiction. I blame my Year 10 English teacher, who must have made us spend a semester on the stuff: a couple of great books, and film classics Soylent Green and Omega Man (both with Charlton Heston … I wonder what it is about the man?). I have plenty of friends who rave about Carmody, but they never got around to telling me that Obernewtyn is post-apocalyptic. Having got to my mid-20s without reading this doyenne of Aussie fantasy, I decided it was time to take her for a spin. I’m glad I did.

In this post-apocalyptic world, the Land is being ruled by an authoritarian Council and the religious Herder Faction. They are determined to keep the Land pure, free from mutants – called Misfits – caused by the Great White some time ago (clearly a nuclear holocaust; shades of The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, here). They burn or banish all mutants – but of course, not all mutations are visible to the eye; the powers that be are beginning to try and root out these mental mutations too. At the same time, they are being threatened by rebels and Seditioners, whom they are also rooting out and often burning. Elspeth is the daughter of Seditioners, and has been living in a home for orphans since they were burned. She also has the ability to talk to beasts and people – in her head. She lives in constant fear of being discovered, and becomes even more scared when she is denounced for the express purpose of then sending her to Obernewtyn – a house in the mountains with an ominous reputation. While there, she eventually discovers the secret of the masters of the house, and ends up getting involved with an attempt to overthrow them.

Elspeth is an engaging character. She is of an indeterminate age – early or mid teens – who has had to grow up quickly in order to both look after and protect herself. She is quick-witted, resourceful, and cursed by her upbringing: as an orphan, living in facilities where children were rotated in order to stop friendships from forming, she has gotten used to walling herself off from those around her. Her closest friend, in fact, is Maruman – a cat badly affected by (what is presumably) radiation. He keeps making random and cryptic comments about her future. From this, it was obvious fairly early on that Carmody certainly had designs on a series, but this book does stand on its own.

The other characters are also engaging. There are a number of incidental characters, as any novel has; most of these have a clear role in the story, but are not just defined by these roles. There are a few major characters: Matthew, Dameon – a blind empath – and a farmhand named Rushton are all on Elspeth’s side, in one way or another. The villains are classically nasty, with appropriate names like Vega, Alexi and Ariel. Ariel is my favourite, for being the archetype of beautiful-face-hiding-a-black-heart.

This book felt, to me, very clearly to be a debut novel. There were a few sections with some laborious exposition, and some other sections with fairly transparent denouement. Some few sections were a bit tedious because they didn’t seem to have much to do with the actual storyline. However, I understand that Carmody was a teenager when she wrote it, and for that it’s pretty spectacular. As soon as I’d read this book (in a day and a half), I went and begged the next three from a friend. I’ve heard that the fifth – and, God willing, final – book is meant to be out in June 2007. Bring it on.