This is the third book in Isobelle Carmody‘s THE OBERNEWTYN CHRONICLES, marking the point where the series takes on a truly epic quality. Seriously, this instalment is twice the size of the first volume, and the next one is even larger!
Elspeth Gordie is one of many so-called Misfits that dwell in the safe haven of Obernewtyn, a place where those with psychic abilities (whether they’re telepaths, coercers, beast-speakers or far-seekers) can live in peace and secrecy. That latter quality is necessary due to the totalitarian Council that rules the rest of the land, their laws enforced by religious leaders known as Herders. In the eyes of Herders, Misfits such as Elspeth are an aberration.
But they’re not the only enemy of the Council. Rebel forces that oppose the Council exist in cities all across the realm, and the Misfits are eager to make an alliance with them. After all “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and Misfits are well-aware their talents would be extremely useful in any sort of government overthrow. But those on the Council aren’t the only ones that fear and mistrust Elspeth’s people — many of the rebels do as well.
Under the guise of returning an injured gypsy to her own people, Elspeth makes the journey to the city of Sutrium, a place fraught with dangers. There she interacts with all kinds of allies and enemies, uses her abilities to their full extend, learns more about the cataclysm that destroyed the Beforetimers, and grows further into the role of leader for her people.
This summary of Ashling (1995) doesn’t really do the story justice. As the third book in an on-going series, Carmody has introduced most of the world-building, and can now expand on Elspeth’s adventures at leisure. There’s a romantic subplot with Obernewtyn leader Rushton, a clandestine meeting with the leader of the gypsies, a suspenseful encounter with a mysterious slave-trader, and finally a journey to the desert region of Sador, where Elspeth and her people are tested for their worthiness in joining the rebel cause.
As well as all this, Carmody also expands on Elspeth’s role as a chosen figure of prophecy, dropping plenty of extra clues as to what the future holds for her. As always, the story is told in first-person narrative by Elspeth herself, and Carmody ensures that her voice is stronger than ever: getting across her inner turmoil without sounding self-centred. The supporting cast is good too, from the grouchy one-eyed cat Maruman, to the Obernewtyn spy Domick who has grown jaded and isolated from his undercover work in the Council. All of them feel like real people, with lives outside the scope of Elspeth’s point-of-view.
Ashling suffers a little from middle-book syndrome, in which nothing is started and nothing is really resolved. Though it was published back in 1995, the climax is very Hunger Games in nature, and feels a little disconnected from everything that occurs in the book up until that point.
However, at this point THE OBERNEWTYN CHRONICLES are more of an ongoing saga than a series of standalone books. This is the next chapter of Elspeth’s life, one that continues into The Keeping Place and beyond.