Obernewtyn (Obernewtyn Chronicles) by Isobelle Carmody

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Obernewtyn (Obernewtyn Chronicles) by Isobelle Carmody

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: The intriguing first book in a series about a post-holocaust society and a young girl struggling to avoid the terrible fate which awaits all those found to have enhanced mental abilities.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-1408806975

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A nuclear catastrophe called the Great White destroyed most of the world, and only those who lived in isolated parts of the countryside were able to survive by refusing all contact with radiation-infected refugees from the urban centres. In time the cities grew again, but the fear of outsiders and of those who were different remained and became a religion, composed in part of half-remembered elements of faiths from the time before the apocalypse.

When this book, the first in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, opens, Elspeth Gordie is a girl on the brink of adulthood. She is an orphan, born of parents who were burned for sedition by the fanatical Herders who dominate the state religion, and she has lived most of her life in one of the cheerless orphanages set up to house children like her.

Radiation fallout means that even now, centuries after the Great White, some people are still being born with enhanced abilities. Elspeth, for example, can read minds, coerce people psychically and communicate with animals. But mutants like Elspeth are hated and feared by society: the penalty for anyone discovered to have unusual abilities is swift and brutal. Elspeth's only hope of survival is to conceal her abilities until she can receive her certificate of normalcy when she is eighteen.

Because of her orphan status and her fear of inadvertently revealing what she can do, Elspeth is an independent, self-sufficient girl who does everything in her power to avoid being noticed. Her situation is precarious: her brother Jes, the only person who knows her secret, longs to become an assistant to the powerful Herders, and he could deliver her to them at any time. Elspeth has become used to isolation: the cruel practice of regularly moving orphans to new homes has taught her never to seek friendship, and when she finds herself for the first time since her parents died with people who care for her, she remains cool and distrustful.

Elspeth's secret is revealed, and she is declared a Misfit. She narrowly escapes being burned to death for this because she is able to persuade the Council that her powers are weak, and that she acquired them by falling in tainted water, rather than being born with them. The Council is persuaded by a sinister woman called Madam Vega to send her to an isolated work camp in the mountains, where children are experimented on in the hope of 'curing' them. Once she is there, she discovers a conspiracy to use children with mutant abilities to find the Beforetime weapons which caused the nuclear holocaust, so that the ruthless group which runs Obernewtyn can gain total power over society.

Elspeth's story is as much about her journey towards the realisation that she can trust and be trusted, as about thwarting villains. In a world without either technology or books, ignorance and repression are the weapons used to separate and rule. The book creates a fascinating world and shows how cruel and unforgiving human beings can be in extreme circumstances. Although the books are only just being issued in Britain, they were first published in Australia in 1987, and proved very popular: there are several fan-sites and the series has even featured on the high school curriculum. Isobelle Carmody reputedly began to write the books as a teenager and this does show a little: the villains are hardly developed as individuals, and in a few places the phrasing is stilted or disjointed. But these are minor complaints and thoughtful teen readers will find a thrilling story with plenty of tension and excitement, and also much food for thought about human nature in crisis.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for sending us this book.

Further reading suggestion: Readers who like dystopian novels will enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, which is also the first in a series.

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