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Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody
Obernewtyn Chronicles #1

Penguin Books 1993 (1987)
Mass Market Paperback
248 pages
YA Fantasy


This month, June, marks the start of the Obernewtyn Chronicles Reading Marathon! Each month we are reading a book in the series, though predictably the release date for the final book, The Red Queen, has been pushed back to next year – no surprises there. I decided to go ahead with the read-along anyway, because it has literally been YEARS since I last read them and there’s so much going on that I had forgotten about, I’ve been itching to start from the beginning again.

Forgive my daggy 1993 second edition pictured here, it is the least attractive cover of them all (I believe it has gone through about five covers by now, a new one each time a new book is released) – bear with me and I’ll try and convince you how awesome this book, and the series, really is.

Some time in our future, we nearly destroyed the world. After the Great White, and the Chaos, only the farmlands were untouched by the poison that ruined so much else. The farmers rallied against the influx of refugees fleeing the cities, banding together and forming a Council that meted out death to the incomers. To further cement their growing hold on the land and its survivors, they gave power to a fledgling religion, the Herder Faction, which decreed that the creator, Lud, had sent the Great White as punishment for the wickedness of the Beforetimers, their machines and books and meddling. Such things were outlawed. People who spoke out against the Council or the Herders were labelled Seditioners and either sent to Council Farms or burnt.

Such was the fate of Elspeth Gordie’s parents. Now she and her older brother, Jes, are Orphans, living in a home in Kinraide. Their future is uncertain, they have no friends, and because of Elspeth’s growing mutant mental powers, she has become estranged from her brother who seeks favour with the Herder Faction. If anyone were to find out that she is a Misfit – one of those “deformed” by the taint of the world – she would be sentenced and possibly burned, and Jes’ hopes of being independent, a free man, would be ruined.

On a routine trip to collect the highly toxic substance called Whitestick, a task given to Orphans because they are dispensable, Elspeth falls into a stream and strikes her head on a rock. The headaches she experiences are less because of the fall and more to do with a premonition coming upon her, but the excuse serves. Only when a woman from the mountain keep of Obernewtyn arrives, looking for Misfits who the Master of Obernewtyn can practice his cures on, does Elspeth feel in danger. Caught out by the woman, Madame Vega, she is denounced as a Misfit – though she uses her power to make it known that tainted water from her fall is the cause of her Dreaming, not a genetic or hereditary mutation that would cause her brother to be suspected of it too.

Sentenced to Obernewtyn, a place far away in the mountains rife with rumour and a gothic reputation, Elspeth feels for once strangely free. To be finally “caught” and labelled Misfit, something she has always worked hard and struggled to avoid, is like sloughing off an old skin. But the Orphan way to avoid being friendly with others and to always hold your own counsel is harder to do away with. It takes weeks for two boys at Obernewtyn to befriend Elspeth, a loner and a secretive one at that. Matthew and Dameon have their own Misfit abilities: like Elspeth, Matthew is telepathic and can “farseek” – mentally reach out over distance, though he is not as strong as she is. Dameon, a blind boy and the son of a Councilman, is Empathetic, able to feel the emotions of others.

Making friends for the first time in her life, Elspeth is far from relaxed at Obernewtyn: the farm overseer, Rushton, seems to openly dislike Elspeth for no apparent reason; Madame Vega has yet to return from her tour of the Lowlands, collecting Orphans, but in her absence a favoured twelve-year-old boy with an angelic face, Ariel, rules the roost with his haughty arrogance and sly cruelty. A girl about Elspeth’s age, Selmar, wanders the halls of Obernewtyn with a vacant look on her pale face; touching her mind, Elspeth discovers she is mentally broken and half-derranged.

Through her new friendship with Matthew and Dameon, they start to piece the puzzle together: that the Master of Obernewtyn is collecting Misfits for some terrible purpose, that they are searching for something dangerous. And it is not long before Elspeth realises that she is the one they are looking for, the one strong enough to unlock the secrets they are after. Knowing that it could only be a matter of time before she too is taken away every night and turned into another brain-dead Selmar, her thoughts turn to flight. Only no one has ever escaped Obernewtyn and lived.

I first read this book in primary school – when I was in, what, grade 5 or 6. So, a couple of years after it came out in 1987 I think. I used to scour the school library’s shelves every week, looking for something new to read. Most of the books were old paperbacks from the 70s and early 80s; new books were less common, since funding was so pitiful. But this book, with its unusual cover, jumped out at me. And when I started reading it, I was instantly hooked. It became one of my favourite books ever, alongside Thunderwith and a couple of others that held places close to my heart. These were books that touched me personally, that felt like friends, that seemed to have been written for me alone. Like I was waiting all my life for them. That’s what reading Obernewtyn the first time felt like, like being reunited with someone dear to you. Like it was a key that made things click into place for you. You never know what book will do that to you, and it doesn’t mean that it will do that for anyone else, but when you come across such a book they leave a lasting impression.

I’ve since read this book about five or six times now, and it never grows old or stale. It always has the same magic. Now, my edition has some typos, some missing punctuation, and at one point an important piece of dialogue comes after Elspeth’s thoughts on it (page 186), but I expect they’ve been cleaned up in the later editions and I can never hold such things against a beloved book or such an awesome story.

For this is just the beginning. From here it gets ever so complex and stunningly original. You never know where Carmody’s imagination will take you, but it always comes together beautifully. When this book first came out in 1987, you didn’t really get Fantasy books about kids with mind powers, or even that much in the way of post-apocalyptic fiction (U.S. publishers today would blindly label this “dystopian” but while there is a repressive regime, it’s not really about that. It’s much more fantasy than anything else). For all the fantasy I’ve read in my life, this series is still original.

Part of it is Elspeth. She is always a loner at heart, restless, not wanting to be cooped up or stationary. She is always secretive by nature, holding her innermost thoughts and desires close. In this book she learns, to her surprise, that it is rude to read the thoughts of other people, especially if they are Misfits like her. Having always believed she is the only one to have such powers, and that she needed to do whatever it took to survive, she never had any qualms before.

My mind was reeling with the things he had said. In one moment he had changed my life. Not only were there others like me, but there were people who had different sorts of abilities. Surely that would mean we were not isolated Misfits. I realized I had been rude taking a thought from [Matthew’s] mind. It was different when they did not know. I would have to be more considerate. I knew then that I had decided to trust the boy and his blind companion. In one sense I had no choice, but my sudden desire not to invade the thoughts of another person was new, and told me that I had accepted something I had previously thought impossible. I was no longer alone. [pp.100-101]

She is about fourteen or fifteen in this book (her older brother Jes, we know, is sixteen), but thinks like a much more mature person. Considering all she’s been through in her life, and how suspicion and finger-pointing leads all Orphans to keep their own counsel and grow up fast, it’s not surprising. For all that Elspeth changes and grows over the course of the novels and the years, these traits remain with her and mean that her relationship with Rushton is one you’ll need a lot of patience to see through – it moves slowly.

Oh Rushton. Another great character who never really has large roles in the books, but tends to steal your attention away whenever he’s present. I always had a thing for him, as a teenager, and that never really died. Feeling the chemistry brewing between him and Elspeth over the years (it certainly felt like years and years because each book took such a long time to come out!!), the slow-burning anticipation of something more was enough to keep you reading, let alone all the other qualities of the story.

If you’re a fan of Young Adult fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction or any good genre fiction really, you absolutely have to try Obernewtyn. The book does bear the subtle marks of a first novel, and one originally written when Carmody was 14 – no matter how many times you re-write and edit a first book, it tends to read less smoothly than later works. This is the introduction book to the series, the “setting the scene” book: if the concept and the characters do not draw you in as thoroughly as they do me, you should still read on: every book is better than the one before it. My favourite series from my favourite author, I am of course incredibly biased. But for good reason. Come discover the magic for yourself.

20 comments to Review: Obernewtyn

  • Amy

    I have to admit great affection for that cover, just because it is the one I have (I think it may have been the first book I bought with my own pocket money as a child, hence nostalgia).

    You have made me itch to reread this, but I have lent the series to Kelly so she can read along with you!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Amy, Nostalgia is a great reason to love a book cover! But I have that feeling for the first edition, while this one always disappointed me. I find it really daggy and a bit silly. What’s with the headdress thing? And while I liked this illustrator’s cover for The Farseekers, I really didn’t like his drawing of Elspeth here or for Ashling. She looks so ugly!

    Why oh why doesn’t Kelly have her own copies?! Shame on her! We can still talk about the books though. 🙂

    [Reply]

  • I am intending to read this but unfortunately I don’t think I will get to it for the readalong.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Marg, Oh bummer. Glad you’re planning on reading it though!

    [Reply]

  • Sorry I haven’t been around much – I’m working my way through a big backlog on google reader. Just thought I’d pop in to say how much I like the flags you put on each post. Such a great little idea!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Jackie (Farm Lane Books), Hi Jackie, not to worry, I’ve been struggling to keep up too!

    Thanks, I thought they’d make a great way to see where authors come from and what I read the most of – they’re screwing with my stats though, you wouldn’t believe how many people google “usa flag” every day!

    [Reply]

  • I loooove the Obernewtyn series! I always thought it was funny how Obernewtyn itself can be such a slim book while the rest just grew and grew with each new one! Enjoy the other books 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Angelya, How do you find the series compares with similar books written these days?

    I’m looking forward to re-reading these very much – plus I haven’t read the last two yet!

    [Reply]

    Angelya Reply:

    @Shannon, the earlier books are quite short and the story definitely gets more intricate in the later books. It’s been a while since I read them though, so I’ll let you make your own comparisons!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Angelya, Oh yes I know, I have them all, I just haven’t read the last two because I needed to re-read them all first! She really does take FOREVER to get the next book out! Same with the Legendsong trilogy which I’m dying to have finished! It was getting SO GOOD!! (and is worthy of lots of caps and exclamation marks!)

    I was wondering how you find this series compares with more recent ones that have similar themes or world-building? I find them quite different, much more like adult fantasy than YA in how the plot develops and the relationships are handled. She takes her time, y’know? But I’m really curious about what other people think.

    [Reply]

    Angelya Reply:

    @Shannon, yep, I must admit I was a bit surprised at the YA classification, but I guess the characters are all young adults *shrug* All I know is, I still love the series and it holds its own against more recent releases in my opinion 🙂
    Legendsong, eh? Is that one YA as well?

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Angelya, I think, not sure but I think, that this one was originally marketed as YA but it was also shelved under adult fantasy. Don’t know if it still is. The Legendsong trilogy is adult fantasy – not that teens couldn’t read it or anything! I agree, I think Carmody’s older books more than hold their own against contemporary YA. I think they’re grittier too – I’m thinking of The Gathering – and more original, like Scatterlings. There’ve been some similar stories recently – I think Pure has a similar premise, with domes and poisoned air outside, but I love what Carmody did with it. And I like to think: her books came first! 😉

    [Reply]

  • “If you’re a fan of Young Adult fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction or any good genre fiction really, you absolutely have to try Obernewtyn.” — I am a fan of all of those things. And I think you mentioned this book on a Top Ten Tuesday and I was all like OMG I NEED TO READ THAT!

    So yeah, I really like this review and it sounds like the romance is a slow developed burn and I LOVE that.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @April Books & Wine, I hope you do read it April. Carmody is HUGE in Australia but sadly our authors struggle to get noticed in America and Canada 🙁 And she is published here! Not all her books but still.

    And I hope if you do read it and you didn’t find it quite up to your standards, you’ll keep reading because, like with Harry Potter, the books mature and get incredibly … MORE with each volume. 🙂

    [Reply]

  • […] of Giraffe Days has started her Obernewtyn reading marathon in preparation for the final book in the series, due later this year (although apparently […]

  • I deliberately didn’t come and read your review until after I’d re-read Obernewtyn for this month because it has been a long time since I actually read this one in full – probably 4-5 years and I wanted to go in almost new, which I know is hard, given I’ve read a lot of the others lately. But! Anyway, I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this again as an adult but also how little I related to Elspeth in this one. My liking of her really does grow over time, because she’s very withdrawn and remote in this one. I wanted to go straight on to the next one, but I’m making myself wait!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Like you, I always found Elspeth very withdrawn and remote in the first book, and I agree that she grows and opens up a bit over time/books – but because I was drawn to her despite (or maybe even because of) this, when I first read it (and re-read it…), that feeling was still there, years later. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found her somewhat remote. It’s one of the things I like about her, in a way. And in another way, I wish she could relax and open up more, especially to Rushton! But you’ve read the two books I haven’t – oh I’m so excited!! I too wanted to immediately read The Farseekers – I love this story so much!!

    (hence all the incoherent gushing!)

    [Reply]

  • […] has been two years since the climactic events of the first book, Obernewtyn, occurred. Elspeth is about seventeen years old and still recovering from the burns to her feet and […]

  • […] I love it when Fantasy fiction explores relevant issues and philosophy like this, examining the way society works. It’s like Lloyd Alexander said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” (I really should think about reading one of his books!) Carmody does that and more, which is why she’s been my favourite writer since I was in primary school and first read Obernewtyn. […]

  • […] reflecting on things – odd, for a first-person narrator. Perhaps I’m more accustomed to Elspeth Gordie’s style of musing? There were times when things really were her fault, and I wished, more than once, […]

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