Elspeth has dreams that come true. She can read thoughts, even the thoughts of animals, especially the strange cat Maruman. These gifts make her a Misfit, marked for death in her world.
Isobelle Carmody’s post-apocalyptic fantasy Obernewtyn, published in 1987, follows Elspeth from the “orphanage farm,” where she and her brother Jes were sent after the execution of their parents for sedition, to the strange mountain compound of Obernewtyn, a place of mystery, power and great danger.
In this world a strict government and a stricter religious order called The Herders control the population after a catastrophe, the Great White, nearly destroyed all life. It appears from the toxicity of the soil and the mention of whole sectors that are “badlands” that the event might have been thermonuclear. Anything from the Beforetimes, like books, is suspicious, and most such items are destroyed. Psychic or paranormal ability is dealt with harshly. Jes hopes to become a Herder, so when Elspeth’s abilities are uncovered, she distances herself from her brother in order to save him.
She is sent to Obernewtyn. The theory is that the director of Obernewtyn, Dr. Seraphim, is developing a treatment that can “cure” Misfits, but Elspeth becomes convinced that there is something more sinister going on. Maruman, the cat that Elspeth talks to, also has visions, and he has talked about her having a destiny. Elspeth does not find her destiny at first, though. Instead she finds that friends of hers who are sent to the doctor for treatments come back pale, sick and more and more emotionally disturbed. One friend is having terrible nightmares and seems to be possessed by someone or something. Elspeth’s own dreams tell her that something of great danger, a machine from the Beforetimes, is nearby, and that activating it could bring back the Great White.
Elspeth’s relationships with the animals are engaging, and her friends are brave and loyal. Elspeth herself suffers from doubts about her own bravery, as a handful of them plot an escape from the compound. Elspeth is not a bad role model in some ways for a young adult reader, but her powers expand exponentially without any explanation, and often too conveniently — like when she needs to unlock a door and remembers that it’s a good thing that she can open locks with her mind. The villains are Evil Overlords, lacking any real motivation. Rushton, an enigmatic character, with past and his motives for working at the compound, would actually have made a more reasonable villain that the three we have.
The book also suffers from a quirk in Carmody’s prose. Chapters and paragraphs are of uniform length (the chapters are about five pages). This sets up a stable rhythm that never varies, even near the end when the action is heating up. The sameness dampens the tension and works against suspense.
This is clearly the first book of a series, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Specifically, it isn’t clear how or why paranormal abilities would start appearing after the Great White, and how they are connected — although they are apparently connected to the machine Elspeth finds. We don’t know how long ago the Great White happened. Instead of some of the exposition in the book, Carmody could have shared this information.
I’m pretty much over the recent YA post-apocalyptic craze, but given that Obernewtyn was published back in 1987 (and which was apparently started when the author was still a teenager), I decided to give it a chance. After all, I couldn’t very well accuse it of jumping on the bandwagon.
A short prologue informs us that a nuclear holocaust known as the Great White has wiped out most of civilization, leaving only isolated communes that are ruled over by a government body known as the Council. But the chemical warfare has had an effect on the population, and mutations spring up across the world — hastily dealt with by a religious faction of the Council known as Herders.
But some mutations aren’t immediately apparent at birth, and once it becomes clear that those with special abilities can grow up undetected within normal communities, the Herders set up Councilfarms for these so-called “Misfits” who are identified as such later in life. A careful eye is kept upon orphanages where the children of executed Seditioners and known Misfits are raised, and it’s here that Elspeth Gordie lives with her older brother, desperately trying to conceal the fact she can communicate with animals.
But her secret is exposed when a Herder called Madame Vega arrives from a remote Councilfarm in the mountains called Obernewtyn. (Isn’t that a great word? Try saying it out loud). To protect her brother, Elspeth leaves without a fight, knowing that she’ll need her wits about her if she’s to survive whatever may await her at the mysterious settlement.
Told in first person narrative by Elspeth, author Isobelle Carmody manages to give her protagonist a strong internal voice, one that carries the reader through the complexities of her world without getting bogged down in minutia (though there are perhaps a few too many characters at Obernewtyn to keep clear track of). Elspeth is focused on her own survival, but not without compassion or sensitivity to others; deeply introverted, but also aware of the bigger picture going on around her.
Her descriptions of the world around her are also a treat: I could very clearly see the devastation of the Blacklands, the foreboding Obernewtyn compound, the dark and grim forests of Silent Vale. Along with Elspeth, I could feel the cold of her surroundings and the relief of a hot meal; the fear that others could engender in her, and the quiet unfurling of hope and trust when she begins to make allies. Carmody has crafted a deep and complex world, but beyond the prologue there is never any exposition overload. Instead we’re gradually introduced to this post-apocalyptic earth and the rules that are in place — not just within its societies, but the myriad types of abilities within each Misfit.
It may sound like stock post-apocalyptic fare with a few fantasy elements thrown in (the ever-popular Chosen One of the Ancient Prophecy trope quickly rears its head), but Carmody’s imagination and writing style elevates the material into something suspenseful and exciting despite its familiarity.
And if you’re a fan of big, meaty sagas that’ll provide several months’ worth of reading material, then I’m happy to inform you that Obernewtyn is not only the first book of seven, but that each one is twice as long as the one before.