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The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody
Obernewtyn Chronicles #5

Viking 2008
Large Format Paperback
996 pages
Fantasy; YA Fantasy; Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

Note: I read the Australian first edition. In the UK and North America, this book has been split into two volumes: Wavesong and The Stone Key.

This review contains spoilers.

The spring thaw has come again to the Highlands and Elspeth is once again leading a group of Misfits to Sutrium, the capital, in time for the first elections since the Rebels freed the Land from the oppressive Council and the fanatical Herder Faction. But not all the Rebel leaders want to relinquish their power in a free election, and the Rebels have a tenuous hold on the Land west to the Suggredoon. On the opposite banks, Soldierguards and Herder warrior priests called Hedra man the new border, and with their ships burned by the fleeing Herders, the Rebel alliance has no means of attacking the West and freeing the citizens there.

There are problems with the Rebel leader Vos, currently holding Saithwold, who has barricaded the people in the town and is censoring communication going to and from the area. When Elspeth and Zarak, another Farseeker, take a detour to see Zarak’s father, Khuria, she learns that Vos is merely a puppet for her old foe, Malik, who is using Saithwold’s isolation to work out an invasion plan with the Herders. In working to defeat him, Elspeth finds herself trapped on one of the three ships the Herders use, and on her way to Herder Isle.

Luckily, she isn’t the only Misfit who snuck aboard a Herder ship – a number of Coercers disguised as Hedra are also aboard, and together they work to take over the Herder Faction from inside, discovering hoards of dangerous Beforetime weapons and a library of Beforetime books for the priests to study – books they publicly denounce and burn on the Land. From the One, the mad, obese leader of the Herders, Elspeth discovers that Ariel has gone to the West coast with plague seeds, to unleash a plague that will kill everyone. She is desperate to stop him, her nemesis, the Destroyer to her Seeker, to save the people trapped in the West.

As a summary, that’s just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Truly there is so much happening in this book it’s hard to know where to start (though I’ve already given away quite a bit!). This was the first time I’ve read this volume (book 5 in the Obernewtyn Chronicles), and I knew nothing going in – I didn’t even read the blurb on the back. It was full of nail-biting tension, mystery, excitement, adventure, danger and discovery. The plot really moves forward, and there are many changes.

I was stunned and delighted that Elspeth infiltrated the Herders – and before the Coercers appeared to save her life, I felt such fear for her. Actually, the fear didn’t end then either. I can’t remember when was the last time I was so emotionally and intellectually engaged in a story – really feeling it, y’know? The atmosphere here is just so compelling and vivid, in that stone fortress of a compound/cloister, a mini city in its way, with secret passages in the thick stone walls and mute “Shadows”, slaves, many of them with their tongues cut out, who Elspeth realises belatedly are all female. It’s quite interesting, actually, that for a story that shows time and again that things aren’t black-and-white, that life is more complex than that, the Herder Faction truly is out-and-out evil.

Ariel, though, is becoming a very complex character. I think he must be quite mad – what’s the word that was always used to describe him? Defective, that’s it. A Misfit term, one used when the Misfits don’t have any powers – though it turns out he has a twisted form of Empathy and Futuretelling powers. You can really start to see the pattern of the dance he and Elspeth are playing now. She knows that he knows she is the Seeker, and she figures out that the reason he makes sure she’s never killed or harmed, is that he needs her to find the Weaponmachines, and if she fails to turn them off or whatever she needs to do, it will be his turn, and he’ll set them off and destroy the world. So far, his only motivation is his own kind of insanity.

One thing though, on this topic – considering how much time Elspeth spends thinking through things, going over the clues and connecting the dots, the one thing she hasn’t mentioned in a long time is the one thing that started it all: seeing Marisa Seraphim’s map of the Weaponmachines cache, seeing exactly where the weaponmachines are located. She’s never shared with us any details of this – whether it’s a place she recognises, or what exactly she saw (and how did Marisa come by it, anyway?). She is instead on a mission set out by Kasanda, the Beforetime Seer – Cassy Duprey – to find the four clues Kasanda left for her, things she will need to complete her task as Seeker. I can only surmise that these things, or information, will help her to disable the weaponmachines, not to find them – since she has that knowledge already, right? But has suppressed it?

Elspeth is a character I’ve always loved, and I felt such compassion for her in this book: the Herders and Ariel did something to Rushton that seems to have killed his love for her. She learns that it’s not actually dead, but that Ariel tortured him and turned Elspeth, the very image of her, into a trigger, with Rushton the bomb. Ariel doesn’t want to kill Elspeth – he needs her – but he has a lot of interest in causing others pain, always has done. His plan is for Rushton to try and kill Elspeth, but with Elspeth safe, she will instead watch her beloved die. Only by doing something Ariel couldn’t have foreseen – his unfamiliarity with love, compassion, generosity etc. renders his forethought weak – can Elsepth save Rushton.

They have had such a hard road together, it seems like at the beginning of every book, something happens to tear them apart. One step forward, four steps back kind of thing. Elspeth has always struggled to balance her secret mission with everyday living, with being open with others, especially Rushton. She’s been holding herself back, she realises, even when she thought she was giving herself, so that she still seems so isolated and lonely. She’s aware, sardonically, cynically, how other people, especially the Misfits, look up to her and mythologise her, which only makes her feel even more isolated. I’ve been keeping track of her age, and I figure she’s twenty or twenty-one in this book – she has changed a great deal over the years, and with each successive book, maturing at a nice, steady pace, in tune with her adventures and self-awareness. It’s wonderful character development, and the story wouldn’t be the same without such a strong protagonist.

The story is awfully long, though. It could probably have been tightened up a fair bit, and there were quite a few typos – names were often wrong (Ode instead of Aris, Port Oran instead of Halfmoon Bay), but I honestly didn’t mind very much, it was just distracting and was hopefully fixed for later editions. It’s very fleshed-out and involved, and again, it touches upon ideology and social issues. The nature of power, for instance, is always relevant:

“It is also that the Faction sets itself up to appear impregnable. That is a defence in itself, for if something appears impossible to break, then no one even tries to break it. But that same appearance of invulnerability is a weakness if those maintaining it believe it, too. Th Herders believed their Compound was so fearsome that no one would dare to enter it save those who had no choice, and so they did not defend themselves within its embrace. In a way, taking over the Compound has been like taking over the Land in the rebellion. The Councilmen had run things for so long they could not imagine truly being challenged, yet most of the Council’s power rested on our accepting that it could not be challenged.”

“When you speak of it in that way, it seems that power is like some … strange agreement between the oppressed and the oppressor,” Elkar said.

Cinda lifted her hand, and as it flickered, Elkar translated, “She says that power is not a real thing, like a ship, but an idea. And only by accepting the idea, do we make it real. She says that freedom is the same sort of thing: an idea that is nothing, until people believe in it enough to make it real.” [p.481]

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.


Other Reviews:

All the Books I Can Read
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