Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Obernewtyn Chronicles

Isobelle Carmody began the first book in the Obernewtyn chronicles while she was still in high school, in the 1980s (it first came out in the United States in 1987), and wrote the rest at intervals of no fewer than three years and sometimes up to nine years! (The cover at left is from a 1993 edition published by Penguin Books.)

There are now somewhere between six and eight books (it's really confusing and hard to know for sure, because they were divvied up differently when published in Australia than they were in North America, and also given different titles!), and we Obernewtyn devotees have been waiting since 2011 for the last book. It has been promised several times and then withdrawn, but it looks like it's finally coming out in November of 2015. Yay! Whoops, November of 2015 in AUSTRALIA. The American release is…one year later? C'mon!

This series is not for the casual reader. Every book is longer than the last, and they all range between 250 and 750 pages. So to say that I have read the entire series twice is to let you know how much I like them.

I hesitate to give the series a label, because it will cause you to have certain presuppositions, based on the past five years of young adult publishing, but….this is a post-apocalyptic/dystopian series. But it's not the formula of heroic girl meets heroic boy in the aftermath of some great catastrophe, they do heroic things, they fall in love, la la la, the end! Also, its central characters have special powers--telepathy, clairvoyance, empathy, healing, the ability to mindspeak with animals, and more--but again, it's not like the latest crop of YA novels in which some event causes some girl to suddenly be able to see the future, or see ghosts, or touch people and know when they will die, or whatever. (I'm not putting any of these books down, I'm simply trying to say that these have become formulas, but Obernewtyn is not formulaic in the same way.) It's my favorite, a convincing combination of fantasy and science fiction.

Honestly, the only thing I can think of to compare it to, off the top of my head, is The Lord of the Rings. Not because they share direct similarities, per se (definitely no Orcs or fairies or trolls), but because this is a SAGA, a quest, involving multiple people united for various reasons, but with a heroine the equivalent of Frodo, destined to do what she has to no matter what the cost, sustained by some special sidekicks and her own strength and pertinacity.

The things I like about it:

It is written in a really truthful, believable way for a post-apocalyptic novel. After the "Great White" (nuclear war), the only people left were those who lived too far away from city centers to have been in the blast zones. Those people pulled together and created a couple of ruling bodies, one civil and one religious, that started out as loose associations, but now, several hundred years later, have become despotic, controlling, and punitive. The thing that makes it feel so real is that the ruling bodies were initially made up of less sophisticated people--rural people, without a lot of amenities, without a lot of modern conveniences--and so it evolves, after technology betrays the entire society, into a permanent good that people should shun those sorts of things. The longer they shun technology, the less they remember or understand it, and the bigger it grows in their minds as the root of all evil. This causes legends and superstitions to arise about the blast zones and the people who lived there, and those tend to keep the people away from all that kind of knowledge, which suits the rulers just fine. All of this gives a touching and believable naiveté to characters in the present day.

The mental powers themselves are initially billed as evolving out of people's exposure to the badlands (in other words, birth defects due to radiation), so people who have these powers are hated and feared as dangerous Misfits. Rather than being in awe of people who have special abilities, this society tends to kill them, to ban them, or to send them to work farms where they labor nonstop until they die. This causes the Misfits to hide and protect their powers from everyone--not just the rulers, but their neighbors, even their closest loved ones. But there is a rumor, in the land, about a place isolated up in the hills on the other side of the badlands, where Misfits are welcomed, called Obernewtyn….

Remember how I compared this to Tolkien? That's also because the level of detail about each and every aspect of the heroine, her many companions, and her quest is lovingly and extensively detailed, so you have to be the kind of reader who likes that kind of thing. You have to have patience with digression, with explanation, with mysterious pronouncements. But if you do…if that's your kind of series…then you will love Obernewtyn like I do! (Did I mention that there's a telepathic cat?)

As far as waiting for the last book, two things:
  1. I can't, so I have made arrangements with someone to send me the book from Australia;
  2. If you start reading NOW, you will probably be ready to read the sequel sometime in December. I will have received it and finished it by then, and I promise that I will then donate it to the library so that anyone in Burbank who takes me up on the challenge to read the Obernewtyn Chronicles will not be disappointed, as I was, to learn that there was no swift conclusion!
The books are available from the Central Library, and they are in three volumes of two books each:


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