Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #14: Obernewtyn, Isobelle Carmody

Obernewtyn (1987) is the first book in Isobelle Carmody's fantasy/sci-fi series The Obernewtyn Chronicles. It depicts a world struggling back from the brink of destruction, a nuclear holocaust known as the Great White. Elspeth Gordie's parents were burnt at the stake for sedition by the Council who rule the people with an iron fist. Any deviation (mutation) in the population is not tolerated. Misfits, as the mutants are known, are sent to Council farms to work until they die, or to an institution called Obernewtyn, across the Badlands and high in the mountains. When Elspeth is denounced, she is sent there and must hide the true extent of her powerful psychic ability, or risk being subjected to batteries of strange "treatments" that could see her mind broken forever. There's also prophecies, talking animals (and not in a cheesy way), rebels, and an even more fanatical faction known as the Herders; they're like the Gestapo if the Council is the Nazi party.

Obernewtyn is a reread for me, and bugger me if it's not even better the second time around, and from an "older and wiser" perspective. It's like the Goldilocks of books: everything is juuuuuuuuuust right. The pacing makes me want to weep. It's perfect. The heroine isn't "stubborn" or "clumsy" or "shy"; she just is Elspeth. Scared, strong, sensible, sensitive Elspeth. There's something about the writing that I want to call "unisex". It lacks floral adornment and rising passions; there's nothing aggressively female about Elspeth, though she is undeniably feminine. I can't decide whether Carmody did this on purpose to attract boys to her story as well as the inevitable girls, or whether it is just her style. I must say that what ever the reason it's refreshing to read writing like this.

You'll see from my review of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955) that I promised a comparison between the two books. If you don't know much about the The Chrysalids, read my review here. It's a fantastic semi-YA dystopian novel set, like Obernewtyn, after a nuclear apocalypse. Society has regressed into a pseudo-Dark Ages. Both books deal with intolerance and prejudice. Both have Badlands (areas of lands too irradiated to inhabit) a fanatical religious faction in power and a group of kiddies trying desperately to conceal their psychic powers and escape persecution. There's an interesting parallel between a trio of characters in each work: a brother and a sister, and the brother's lover. By birth or sheer hard work the brother has a significant place in the religious order; he also has moderate psychic powers. The sister is the most powerful psychic to ever exist. The brother's lover is of secondary importance in both books. In The Chrysalids they are David, Petra and Rosalind. In Obernewtyn they are Jes, Elspeth and Rosamunde.

This exercise isn't to demonstrate that Carmody has plagiarised Wyndham or anything ghastly like that--merely to demonstrate that great books aren't written in a vacuum. I'm guessing that Carmody, when she was fifteen and started writing Obernewtyn, had just read The Chrysalids and saw an opportunity to extrapolate the society in Labrador. Or maybe she didn't and the whole thing is a huge coincidence and she thought it up all by herself. Either way, read both of these books. They're brilliant.

While the world and characters in each book have parallels, their trajectories are very different. Dystopian novels often end with the hero either escaping society or overthrowing it. The Chrysalids is a stand-alone novel and opts for the former; Obernewtyn is a series that seems to be heading into infinity and beyond (final book tipped for release early next year, page extent a million??) and has the scope for a really good overthrowing.

Did I mention that Carmody is Australian? *bursts into patriotic song*

Lastly, I don't want to see this series made into a film. There aren't enough "things" to give the audience a focus, like a golden compass or bow and arrows or a sparkly vampire. Movie-gods: I know this is the time to cash in on what's good and popular in YA, but leave this one on the page!

Last of all: I rather like these new covers. They feel cold and mysterious and while Elspeth looks a touch too knowing and predatory, its a vast improvement on earlier editions. The last book better be done by the same designer so it doesn't muck up my set!


  1. Though I was a bit disappointed with later books in the series, Obernewtyn was really perfect. I read it a couple of years ago, and I agree, it shouldn't be made into a movie. The attraction of it was more in the writing and the subtleties (God, I can't spell that), and I think that would be lost onscreen.

  2. It's been so long since I've read books 2-4 but I think I must agree with you. The only scenes that really stick in my head are of both Elspeth and Rushton, and seeing as Elspeth hangs around him for about five minutes in each of the books there's a lot I'm forgetting! I'm planning a reread of them all and a first reading of the Stone Key, but I'm not falling over myself to do it.

  3. I am only just discovering this series for the first time and I have to say that I really am loving the first book so far. I will have to try and get my hands on a copy of The Chrysalids sometime.

  4. I'm going to add this to my "to buy list".

    I've talked about this, and I think a big difference in YA and adult dystopia is that in YA the MC either escapes or overthrows the society while in adult, usually the society wins. No wonder I prefer the YA ;)

  5. PS: Can you write me an e-mail? I want to ask you a question! lenoreva at hotmail dot com

  6. I'm currently slowly reading my way through the series (recently finished The Keeping Place) and I'm enjoying the later books as much as I did the first one. The focus is a little different, but I think Carmody blends the current story of the world beautifully with the discovery of hints about what happened at the time of the Great White - and what the world was like before that, as it clearly wasn't our world we live in now. I'm hooked and trying to save up The Stone Key (I have the US editions, so I have two books) to read a little closer to when the end of the series is due to be published.

    I just found your blog and dystopian challenge today through The Book Smugglers and I'm loveing reading through your reviews. I can see several books I'm going to have to look out for.

  7. I thought I would check out your review since you'd mentioned it. It's brilliant! You put into words so much that I was feeling when I finished the book that I could not express myself. (I tend to think in abstracts like colour or a feeling and not with words, so sometimes it's hard for me to describe things - hence my calling this a "smart" book!)

    I have to agree with the unisex comment as well and at the same time Elspeth being feminine.

    I didn't know about this series when it was first out - possibly it wasn't in Canada? Hmm. I don't know, curious to see what the original covers were though!

  8. I think this one was just an Australian release for a long time--often (especially in the past) our books only have an Australian release until their proved popular, and then they get sold overseas. Like Marsden's tomorrow series and Simone Howell, Margo Lanagan, Sonya Hartnett etc etc. Their books have been out for yonks but it's only recently that I've seen them appear in the US.

    I'm glad you liked my reveiw Cat! It's good to know you agree with me and I'm not waffling total crap, hehe.

    Kerry, I'll be going onto the subsequent books very soon. I hope I enjoy them as much you are!

  9. Very important question: Are there cats in this book?

  10. There are indeed! There's one cat, Maruman, that Elspeth can talk to because she's psychic. He's been in the wars, so to speak, and has torn ears and crazy eyes, and he's a very wise kitty.

  11. I don't think I'd heard of this before, but your review is so compelling I've just ordered a copy. Plus, any book you can mention in the same breath as The Chrysalids must be worth reading. Really excited about this one, so thanks.

  12. What a great book, one of my favorites form that year.