Friday, March 7, 2008

Obernewtyn (Obernewtyn Chronicles, #1) by Isobelle Carmody

From the favourer: "Part of me likes the idea of the basic simplicity of the characters lives, i.e.. no electricity, cars, everything done manually, and using traditional forms of healing. I can't be sure, but this book may have been one of the reasons why I wanted to study Naturopathy. And the tragic romantic in me definitely responded to the budding relationship of the main character!"

The stars seem to have been in alignment for my choosing this time to read (well, re-read) this favourite book. Just as I started on Obernewtyn, the long awaited 5th book in the series appeared on bookshop shelves. So I thought I may as well rip through all four previous books so that my memory was refreshed of the story arc in time to read the #5, The Stone Key. Then, just after I bought the latest book/doorstop, the lovely Pam of Viewpoint asked me if I was an Isobelle Carmody fan, because they were looking for someone to review book #5 and would I do it? I proceeded to look slight panicked and squeak out the question that springs foremost to every reviewer's mind:

"By when?"

Mid-April. This should be okay. Despite the fact that I also have 6 books to review for ABR due on the same day. And despite the fact that now I really need to re-read the past four Obernewtyn books, as I can't remember anything that happened in the last book, I don't trust wiki-summaries, and I don't want to appear any more ignorant than possible when I'm in print. And despite the fact (last one) that the latest Obernewtyn book is 1000 pages long and weighs 1.05kg. If I was to sell you this book on eBay, you'd have to pay $9.40 to have it posted to you. So note to all my friends: if I can't see you for the next month, it's because I have to spend every spare moment reading.

Obernewtyn fans are very patient people. We've been waiting for this 5th book for nine years. That's a long time to wait. Generally you're only willing to assign that kind of waiting time to things like unrequited love, or a really nice holiday. You also become a fairly different person in that waiting time if that gap falls between you as an 18-year-old and you as a 27-year-old. I'm taller, for instance. (No really. I've grown 4cm in that interim. Don't people usually stop growing by 18?)

But hey, I ran into Mr Dragonlance Reader #1 on the train again last week! He was reading a Dragonlance book. He asked me if I was still reading the Dragonlance books, to which I replied "Err, no." But I held up Carmody doorstop #4, and that seemed to pass muster.

Anyway, on to Obernewtyn. It's been through several cover art incarnations since its publication in 1987, all of which I rather like. My copies are the first and second styles of covers, though I must say the latest photographic covers are very attractive:

The first-incarnation cover, which is the copy I read for this review, is a nostalgia-inducing Puffin Plus 1980s design, and contains many misprints throughout, most amusingly that "Seeker" is printed several times as "$eeker", which puts rather a different spin on what is being sought.

Elspeth Gordie knows that she is different. She also knows that her kind of difference is enough to see her ritually killed or sterilised, should anyone find out. After the Great White, an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of human life on earth, the civilisation that is slowly rebuilding itself is superstitious and has no tolerance for seditioners or Misfits - humans born with unusual mental capacities. If discovered, they are Burned (in a capitalised ceremony that smacks of witch-trials), sterilised, or sentenced to a slow death working on Council farms. Her own parents Burned as seditioners, Elspeth has managed to keep her mental abilities a secret as she moves between Orphan Homes. But though they do not suspect the extent of her abilities, a representative of Obernewtyn buys Elspeth to take her to this mysterious place in the mountains. Rumours are hazy and sinister, but Obertnewtyn is generally thought to gather up Misfits to work towards 'curing' them. Keeping secret the vast powers of her mind (which include the ability to read minds, communicate with animals, and coerce people to do/say/see things), Elspeth and some new-found friends begin to investigate what is really going on at Obernewtyn. What is the purpose of the never-sighted Doctor's 'treatments' of Misfits that seem to do more harm than good? What do the guardians of Obernewtyn really want with all these Misfits?

Going back to the first of the Obernewtyn books has reminded me why it still seems to be the strongest of all the series. Firstly, I think it's the way it's written predominantly as a mystery story. Elspeth has spent so long just trying to survive and keep her talents hidden, that when she begins to discover the dodginess of Obernewtyn's goings on, it's her love for her friends that prompts her to act. She doesn't initially have a goal or a quest to fulfill, she just wants to find out why people are being hurt. It annoys me when fantasy novels disclose a 'quest' too early, so you simply spend the rest of your reading time waiting for the hero to get on with it, and any emotional/character growth simply gets in the way of the narrative. In Obernewtyn, Elspeth's quest unfolds bit by bit as she gradually pieces together what is going on at Obernewtyn, and the role she must play to avoid a repeat of the Great White. So while her quest does turn out to be rather a lofty one - saving the earth usually being left to the Buffys amongst us - both the intriguing mystery style structure and the relatively small cast of characters means you never feel that fantasy-novel-distancing effect I sometimes encounter as a reader. And matching up what we learn of the Beforetime earth to our earth is great fun. Carmody always writes it as tantalisingly both our world and not-quite-our-world, which makes your brain hover in a weird unsettled place between realism and fantasy.

The character of Elspeth herself is another reason why Obernewtyn is so enjoyable. I've always especially liked that when faced with the possibility of torture, she's pretty certain that if pain is inflicted, she'll spill everything about her friends to get the pain to stop. So rather than cliche-heroic stoicism, she decides in a Jane Eyreish "Keep well and not die, sir" kind of way that she'll just have to avoid being tortured. In the later books Elspeth does veer a bit more towards being the lofty noble heroine (I suppose having the fate of the world hanging over you would have to have an effect eventually), but in this first novel she's a very humanly flawed breath of fresh air.

While the later novels do get spectacularly more complex and epic in scope, in them the first book's committment to non-violence towards all humans and animals, and to fighting with words, mental abilities and cunning rather than broadswords deepens. This is a 'principle' I love about this series. I hate big 300/Lord of the Rings cast-of-thousands macho battles. They are UGLY and BORING. In the Obernewtyn series, the one death that Elspeth causes recurrs through the series as a deep mark on her aura, even despite the fact that she did not intend to kill.

Of course, there's also the longing that I've metioned before as something I associate with reading fantasy novels. Obernewtyn makes you desperately want to be able to communicate with animals, and have a one-eyed grumpy half-mad cat as your lifelong friend. Well, Paul's cat Vada (star of this entry's photo) is grumpy and half-mad but I still can't talk to her. Her ability to understand "dinner?" doesn't count. And Obernewtyn makes you want to live in a wild mansion in the mountains, and you want herbal healing to actually work, and you want to be part of a civilisation at its very beginning.

But mostly you want to be able to talk to animals. And ask them what they think of LOLcats.