I remembered a fair bit about this story – bits and pieces of Elspeth’s story, like the cat, and Ariel, and aspects of life at Obernewtyn. I had forgotten – or didn’t notice the first time – that the quality is quite patchy. There are some bits that really ought to have been picked up by an editor, like the fact that Elspeth uses Ariel’s name without ever being told it (and with no indication that she had got it telepathically either). Some of the scenes are very rushed, and others are just oh-so-convenient. It reminded me, actually, of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone. I understand that bits of this were first written when Carmody was in high school, so perhaps this was her debut, which means I’ll give it some leeway. Because it really is a fascinating story, underneath it all. A world recovering from the Great White, which has poisoned significant portions of the land and caused various mutations; now-forbidden knowledge that perhaps humanity caused the Great White with very amazing weaponmachines; the society which has developed over hundreds of years initially to ensure survival and now, of course, ensuring that the social structure and power hierarchy is maintained. And in to the mix a secretive and fairly unpleasant religious group called the Herders (following the god Lud, which I presume is a corruption of Lord? and being Herders is a bastardising of the idea of priests as shepherds?), and then a group of Misfits with mental powers… and there’s a lot of potential for enthralling storytelling.
Elspeth, the main character and narrator, has her moments of awesomeness and her moments of not. She does develop nicely in terms of her sociability, over the course of the novel, and the conflict she feels over who to trust sometimes works and then at other times seems to melt away far too fast. Of the other characters, I always liked Rushton, the gruff farm overseer; the other Misfits Elspeth encounters are hardly developed at all, but have their flashes of brilliance.
If I were reading this for the first time today, I’m not sure I would continue reading it, which is a surprise to me and a sad one. I am going to keep reading, of course, because I know that the plot becomes ever more tricksy… and the incurable romantic in me remembers some of the emotional conniptions from the later books and desperately needs resolution.