This is the fourth book in Isobelle Carmody‘s ongoing THE OBERNEWTYN CHRONICLES, detailing the lives of telepathic Misfits trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. After the cataclysm known as the Great White destroyed all know civilisation, humanity has re-emerged across various cities and communities, ruled over by a totalitarian Council and religious fanatics known as the Herders.
The Misfits are those regularly used as scapegoats by those in power; their abilities to heal, coerce, mind-speak, empathise and communicate with animals held up as examples of blasphemy and witchcraft. That hasn’t stopped them from building a sanctuary for themselves at Obernewtyn; once a compound for experimenting on their people, now a place of safety and harmony.
But Misfits still harbour a longing to be part of the world, and across the last three books they have forged alliances with rebels, gypsies, foreigners, animals, and others that oppose the rule of the Council. In The Keeping Place (1999), plans are finally put in place to overthrow the Council members — but can the Misfits trust the rebels they’re tenuously aligned with? The agreement to lend their abilities to the rebellion’s efforts is at least partly based on the disappearance of their leader Rushton, and a letter that demands their assistance in return for his life.
Carmody juggles a lot of threads across The Keeping Place — so many in fact, that it feels the most important storyline is occasionally swamped with all the subplots. For the most part it involves the Misfits and the rebels struggling to trust one another as they plot their attacks, but also prevalent is protagonist Elspeth Gordie’s quest to learn more about the Beforetime weapon-machines that once destroyed the old world.
Heralded by the beasts as a figure of prophesy that will find and destroy these weapons before they can be used again, Elspeth is guided on the “dreamtrails” by her cat Maruman in an attempt to find clues as to their location. These were left by the mysterious seer Kasanda, and (as she soon discovers) appear to be connected in some way to the history of the gypsies, rumours of a Red Queen in a land beyond the sea, and the strange Misfit known as Dragon, who lies in a comatose state.
Carmody keeps admirable track of her multitude of plots, characters and locations, lending the entire series an epic scope that’s amazingly detailed and intriguing. You can see bits and pieces of “our” world strewn throughout the remains of civilisation that Elspeth and her people scavenge, and much of the plot relies on uncovering clues as to what exactly happened to change the world so fundamentally.
Elspeth’s first-person narrative continues, and after so many pages her voice has become familiar, even as she grows and matures with each book. For the first time she’s put into a leadership role (thanks to the absence of Rushton) and the responsibility of this duty weighs heavily on the choices she makes throughout the story.
If there’s only one thing that really bothered me, it’s that many characters have similar-sounding names. It took forever for me to realize that Maryon and Miryum were in fact two different people, and the introduction of a boy called Gavyn to the Misfits, which already included a Garth and a Gevan, also caused a few headaches.
In this series each book is longer than the one before, and The Keeping Place is easily three times as big as the first book, Obernewtyn. It’s a meaty story that’ll take some time to devour, filled with enough ideas and possibilities and mysteries to promise even fatter books to come: the enigmatic Red Queen, the fate of Dragon and Rushton, the introduction of a powerful new beast-speaker, the frightening spectre of Ariel, the lost Matthew, the ongoing tensions between rebels, gypsies and Misfits… whew, there’s a lot to keep track of!