Written by: Isobelle Carmody
Published by: Random House
Obernewtyn isn’t new, but it (and Australian author, Carmody) flew under the radar for long enough that it’s worth a look. It is the first in a sci-fi series, and while some readers claim it works well enough as a standalone, I have to disagree due to the lack of resolution in some cases and the number of loose ends.
The basic story follows Elspeth, born into a post-apocalyptic society bent on control via a fundamentalist religion that fears “misfits,” or people born with mutations or special mental abilities. Our Heroine is, of course, one such misfit, as were her parents before her, who were burned at the stake for these crimes. Elspeth fights to blend in, but is discovered before long and sent to live at a mysterious compound in the mountains, Obernewtyn, that takes in such misfits and makes them work, promising a possible cure.
While ostensibly science fiction, due to the post-apocalyptic setting and the psi powers, it reads in some ways as a fantasy–a typical hero’s journey and more. There is very little technology, and our heroes can’t get their hands on any of it. The only real “power” is Elspeth’s telepathy, which may as well be magic.
[ad#longpost]The rest of the book works out what Elspeth finds there and is predictable enough in some ways, but where Carmody and this book really shine are in the details and the characters. We meet a couple of stereotypical villains, but also a couple who are as complex as the few pages devoted to them can be. There are several interesting secondary characters, including Elspeth herself, who is a nicely independent heroine without being a stubborn idiot–she’s brave, complex, and, most importantly, actually a product of the culture Carmody has posited for us.
However, the problem with this book is that it lacks pacing. It is rushed in some places that could really use a bit more explanation, like the final “battles,” and yet is oddly drawn out in a few spots, like the early chapters that, while doing some vital worldbuilding and character definition, also spend a lot of time on people you’ll never see or care about again, and elements that would be lovely if included in a longer work. If you only give yourself 250 pages, should half of that be before the heroine actually reaches the main locale?
There are too many loose ends to consider this standalone, and you will be left wanting to know what happens next to Elspeth and her companions anyway, especially the fantastically written cat, Maruman.
Fans of post-apocalyptic settings should really like this one, as will fans of “soft” sci-fi and mutant tales. It was originally sold as a young adult novel, so it’s appropriate for most ages, though it will probably take a middle teen to follow some of the more subtle threads. Elspeth’s world may not be attractive, but it is certainly intriguing and not the same-old that fantasy readers have seen a thousand times before.