OBERNEWTYNA novel by Isobelle Carmody
(1999, TOR Books)
[original copyright: 1987, Penguin Books]
Obernewtyn Chronicles, book 1
A young orphan attempts to survive after discovering her latent telepathic powers, caused by the great war long ago.
-- First reading (paperback)
A familiar theme, but with well-developed characters, and a plot that knows exactly how far to go.
This is a book meant for young readers, presumably teens. It is good to know this going in. I didn't realize it until I began to suspect that all of the characters of importance were in the under-twenty crowd. The text is a little simpler than an adult book would tend to be, and focuses on the anxieties that teens often feel, but adults would be less likely to admit to. It doesn't detract from the book at all, except if you start to wonder where this book is going with this character. Knowing the target audience before beginning helps to understand the characters a little more.
The first-person narrative also takes some getting used to. I don't think I've read a book from the first person perspective since I, Jedi, many years ago. I found it a little distracting, but it was neat to only have access to one person's mind, so I couldn't find out what was going on elsewhere. In that way, the mystery of what was happening at Obernewtyn was kept a mystery until the end. The only cheat the author made was to allow Elspeth to read words that she did not know, but we as readers do. There was only one instance of that, in the words "elementary computer programming". A better way to go about it would be to have her recognize gibberish in the middle of the title.
Regardless, the story is well-written, and it builds up to an exciting climax. The world Elspeth is born into has undergone a drastic change from the one that we know, even though it is in the future. What is obviously a nuclear war changed the face of the landscapes, and the targets were the cities. The farmers who lived far from the cities, who might not have experienced the luxury of full technology, banded together to protect their territory, killing all who tried to escape the cities. They formed a council to hand out justice, which eventually turned into a religion. The fallout from the nuclear war is that people started to mutate, physically and mentally. The physical mutations were destroyed, while the mental ones were more difficult to find out, but they were also burned at the stake when discovered. This leads to people like Elspeth hiding their abilities in fear of retribution.
The main problem that I have with this premise is that we could go backwards so far technologically. The rural people must have had people skilled in everything they needed, which required machinery of some sort, even just carpentry and blacksmithing.
Maybe this was a little more believable in the late 1980s, when not every farmer would have had a personal computer, at least in our part of the world -and it seems like this story takes place in some part of the western world. The author is Australian, so one would expect a local setting, except that the map in the book indicates "Norseland", so I wonder. Still, the farmers even far from society these days use all sorts of technology; there would be no reason to shy away from it. The main fear by people is that machinery destroyed the civilization that existed before, so it is best to shy away from all machinery.
The people also use terms like "whitesick", "beforetime", and "oldtimers", for radiation fallout, the time before the fallout, and the people from before the destruction. I wonder why such simplistic terms came out of the grammar of the generations that survived. They must have known the real terms, even if they were corrupted through the centuries that passed. It can't be too far in the future, because some paper books have survived.
Since we are in the head of Elspeth, we don't know if the Council is the dominant entity on this continent. Surely there were other areas less affected. I would like to hear about other parts of the world. Is there trade with other "councils"? Would they be so superstitious, with the same practises and motivations?
Once the premise is set, however, the book really gets going. Elspeth is found out as a Misfit, because she has dreams that can come true. However, earlier, she fell in water that she claims was tainted, which saves her from being killed. Instead, she is sent off to Obernewtyn, a place that tries to heal Misfits. She is nervous because of all the horror stories that are rumoured to go on there, but nobody has ever returned, so she can't see how they can be substantiated.
Once she gets to Obernewtyn, I was rather let down. There were no school programs for the kids, and virtually no supervisors. Ariel, a young teen, takes the evil leadership role, ordering people about, and finding places where they are required. He seems to be able to keep them all in line, though I don't really know how. He seems to have special privileges given by Madame Vega, head teacher, but the students already know that if they ganged together, they could defeat him. I suppose the fear of the unknown "Doctor Seraphim", combined with the way people come back from his chambers all mentally numb, cows them all into submission.
Elspeth makes some friends among the other teens at Obernewtyn. Matthew and Dameon are a lot like her, though nowhere near as powerful. They scheme about escaping, but never really do much about it. Elspeth is taken to see the Doctor, and meets the true people who are running the place, Vega and Alexi. They are searching for weapons from before the fallout, something with which they could take on the Council and take over. They believe that one of the youngsters can touch the notes made by the person who originally found these weapons, and find out where they are hidden. That is a little far-fetched, but since I don't know any telepaths, who knows where thoughts go after they leave our head. Maybe they do end up in the things we were doing at the time. Alexi and Vega ruined Selmar's mind, and later Cameo's mind, trying to get at the missing map. Elspeth is strong enough to stay sane, but requires help from another empath, as well as some physical rescuers to avoid giving away the location.
Rushton is one of the workers at Obernewtyn, but he has secrets and is obviously conspiring throughout the book. Elspeth doesn't figure out why until the end, discovering that he is the true heir of Obernewtyn. He was alternately mean and nice, and I don't yet quite understand his motivations. He apparently has some mental powers, too, as he was able to give her energy to escape the machine, but they are very different from hers. Maybe he can act as a "rock" for her to steady herself with.
Elspeth has another ability, apparently unique so far. She can talk with animals directly into their heads. She has a faithful cat named Maruman, who keeps telling her that her destiny lies in the mountains that surround Obernewtyn. Obviously, in future books, she will have to search out the machine and destroy it, perhaps with the help of her friends, maybe with the help of various animals, as well. Her chores at the farm were made easier because of her abilities, as she could converse with the dog, and ask the horses politely to move while she changed the hay. She couldn't talk with the wolves that chased her at the end, however, during which the dog sacrificed himself so she could get away.
There were several aspects of the layout of the castle that I liked very much. The hedge maze to get from the main house to the farms was one of those. I thought it was a really cool concept, which kept the teens from escaping, or going back to the house unattended. I expect that after doing it day after day, however, that they would learn which way to go, as Ariel did. I can't figure out, though, how the people a the farms knew about her escape, if the maze was snowed in. If the farm hands heard about it, they must have had searchers hard on their heels.
But it seems that the searchers were actually not searching for her, anymore, but interrogating Rushton, instead. If she was so important, why were they all the way at the caves with him, instead? Maybe they believed she was killed by the wolves, like Rushton did, but I doubt it, from the way Alexi greeted her.
There are many future stories that could come from this book. The renegade Druid seems to be after the weapons, as well. I don't know if he is to be trusted or not. Elspeth, of course, has to destroy those weapons. There is also the incident of her brother. Why did he develop into a telepath so late in his life, and so soon after Elspeth left for Obernewtyn? I'm pretty sure the boy who came to the village to recruit him was Ariel. The story of Rosamunde gave Elspeth the insight into how to kill with her mind, to save herself at the end, but I wonder what other purpose her brother served.
Then there are Ariel and Maruman. Ariel was assumed dead, always a sure sign that he is alive and well, and ready to be a foil for a future book. Maruman was left in a cave until he got over one of his strange fits, caused by the "whitesick". Finally, the map at the beginning has a lot of tantalizing clues to future stories, including a "hidden library", which must hold the forbidden books from beforetime.
There were a lot of little things that made the world seem real. At the same time, there were a few things that seemed strange, as well. Most of that consisted of fantasy elements sneaking into what is primarily a science fiction book.
For the most part, though, I enjoyed it, and look forward to its two (at least) sequels, wondering how powerful Elspeth will become, and how she will use her powers.
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