Something you should know about me is that I am a bit of a liar. In my first YA for Adults post* I promised that I would recommend books to you that are either finished or close to finished and to be truthful with you, I am unsure when Isobelle Carmody will finish The Obernewtyn Chronicles, but if you start reading them, you can come to a support group over 20 years in the making, since the first book was published in 1987 and the epic saga is yet to be complete. Anytime someone from the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom whines about how long it’s taken Martin to finish his books I pull out my itsy bitsy violin with “Obernewtyn” carved on the back and play the world’s saddest song.
So, that was a slightly depressing start, eh? Still here? Fantastic. Please let me get you addicted to this post-apocalyptic saga about a girl who can talk to animals. First of all, I am unable to be objective about whether or not the Obernewtyn books are well written in the same way that I am about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. The writing in some books is stronger than in others, but overall, it’s the world and the characters you’re there for and for the most part Carmody is an excellent storyteller. Some of the later novels do get a little repetitive (especially if you read them back to back), due to the fact that Carmody takes such long breaks between books and she tends to do lengthy recaps.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles are a good comparison for McCaffrey’s Pern books in that they occupy that delightful place between sci-fi and fantasy. Remnants of our world are sprinkled throughout, and there’s definitely some science behind what’s going on, but things like telepathic abilities, dream worlds and talking, completely sentient animals lean towards fantasy. I think one of the reasons this book will appeal to adult readers, even though many of its characters are young, is the fact that so much of the plot follows political drama, rather than focusing on romance, which can sometimes deter adults from reading YA books. Though Elspeth is sixteen at the start of the novels and is very much a teenage girl, she’s forced to grow up quickly and she takes on a great deal of adult responsibility. Her youth and gender often play a role in how other characters in the novels regard her ability as a leader, which only serves to reinforce how a teenage girl can grow into an adult overnight in extreme circumstances.
In The Obernewtyn Chronicles, the world experienced a cataclysmic nuclear event known as “The Great White” so long ago that knowledge of the “beforetime” is largely myth. In fact, there’s a pervasive belief that the Great White was sent to punish people in the beforetime for their sins, so researching the technology of the time before the event is forbidden. The world is ruled by a group of what amounts to warlords called the Council, backed by a religious cult called Herders. The Herders are hellbent on destroying anyone who stands against them, and people who have developed supernatural abilities, called Misfits.
The series’ protagonist, Elspeth Gordie is one such Misfit. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that though Elspeth and her brother Jes try desperately to hide her abilities, they fail and Elspeth is sent to live at Obernewtyn, a “home” that claims they are trying to “cure” the Misfits of their abilities. There’s more to it than that of course and it’s up to Elspeth to destroy this system. She’s blessed with extra Misfit abilities that result in her being a leader in the coming revolution.
One of the biggest reasons to read and love Carmody’s rambling saga is her difficult characters. There’s not one among them that won’t frustrate you and make you mad, and personally I think that’s a good thing. Elspeth and her crew are downright unlikeable at times and in the later books of the series, you start wondering if the villain is somehow deeply sympathetic, twisted in the hands of fate, just as Elspeth is. It’s this very unlikability of the characters that makes these books so wonderful and so deeply attachment-inducing. They’re so real feeling.
If none of this convinces you, there’s a mentally unstable cat named Maruman and Elspeth can talk to him. That right there should do it for you. He’s probably one of my favorite characters of all time. In the world of fantasy writers, everyone is playing with archetypes and I’m convinced that anyone with a cat and half an imagination knows that the magical cat guide is an archetype as old as time. One lives with me and she’s the inspiration for an extremely dear-to-my-heart character in my WIP.
It can be difficult to sort out all the different ways The Obernewtyn Chronicles have been named and recombined throughout the years, so if you need a guide, check out Carmody’s website for more info. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of writers like Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey I think you’ll really enjoy The Obernewtyn Chronicles.
*As a quick reminder, this series of posts is in no way denigrating teenage protagonists or YA in general, but rather is showing wary adult readers that there is a lot of quality fantasy and sci-fi being produced in the YA genre that they might be missing out on.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, teacher and companion to the ultimate feline dreamtrail guide, Winnie. Winnie is busy holding the fabric of the universe together, but you can get in touch with Allison via Twitter if you want to know how it’s going.