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Vol. 1, The Obernewtyn Chronicles

Isobelle Carmody
Tor Books, 253 pages

Isobelle Carmody
Isobelle Carmody grew up looking after her seven brothers and sisters, whom she kept in line by telling stories. She began the first of The Obernewtyn Chronicles while she was still at high school, and worked on it while completing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in literature. She has worked as a journalist and radio interviewer, and lectures around the world on creative writing. Her short story "Green Monkey Dreams" won the 1996 Aurealis Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
Interview with Isobelle Carmody
The Unofficial Obernewtyn Chronicles Fan Club
Isobelle Carmody Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Obernewtyn (Volume 1 of The Obernewtyn Chronicles) marks first US publication for award-winning Australian children's writer Isobelle Carmody.

Obernewtyn is set in a post-holocaust world, several centuries after a nuclear disaster known as the Great White. Only a few remote farming communities escaped the radiation and its aftermath. To protect the survivors from radiation-induced mutations, the communities' ruling body, the Council, decreed that all beasts and children not born normal should be burned. Over time, it became clear that mutation could be mental as well as physical, producing a range of strange, enhanced psychic abilities. Those with such abilities were condemned as Misfits, and imprisoned in brutal work camps.

Elspeth Gordie and her brother Jes, whose parents were burned for sedition, have spent much of their lives in orphanages. Elspeth is a Misfit, with the power to read thoughts and communicate with animals. Elspeth keeps her abilities hidden, for she knows that secrecy is her only chance of survival. But her powers are too strong to be concealed, and are eventually discovered. She's packed off to Obernewtyn -- an isolated mountain work camp, where, it's rumoured, Misfits are subjected to experiments supposedly meant to cure them.

Obernewtyn is harsh, but better than the orphanages, and Elspeth makes the first friends of her life: clever Matthew, blind Dameon, and fragile Cameo. But there are enemies at Obernewtyn as well as friends. When Cameo becomes the subject of the destructive mind-experiments carried out by Obernewtyn's Master, the mysterious Dr. Seraphim, Elspeth becomes determined to find out what's really going on. She discovers, to her horror, that the terrible science that created the Great White may still exist -- and that someone may be searching for a power like hers, in order to unlock it.

Obernewtyn is a strongly-imagined book that doesn't fall squarely into the category of either science fiction or fantasy, but partakes of both. Carmody has a gift for constructing convincing characters and settings with a minimum of detail, and her vision of post-holocaust society, with its fear-driven repression and quasi-religious rationalization of terrible cruelty, is entirely believable. The turns and reversals of the plot create a building tension that keeps the reader eagerly turning pages. I was reminded, a little, of Andre Norton's early work; there's a similar feeling of mystery to Carmody's world, a similar sense of unfolding imagination.

If the novel has a flaw, it's that Carmody's spare, detached narrative style -- which allows her to evoke the harshness of the post-holocaust world without cliché, and describe the heart-rending situations of the orphans without pathos -- also has the effect of distancing the first-person point of view she has chosen. Elspeth is a chilly, self-contained heroine, a quality that's entirely believable in the miserable setting of the orphanage, but works less well once Elspeth reaches Obernewtyn, where, under the influence of new friendships and growing trust, her emotional walls should surely start to crumble. But even under the duress of grief and loss, Elspeth remains emotionally removed, robbing her tragedies and triumphs -- and, ultimately, the novel itself -- of some of their impact.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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