Spoilers for the first two Obernewtyn books.
The book opens with a halfblooded gypsy about to be burned at the stake by a Herder, which is nicely dramatic and also introduces the gypsies themselves, who have only been vaguely alluded to in the previous books. Here, beginning with Elspeth’s rescue of the gypsy woman (oh come on, that’s not a spoiler; as if she could ride past and let it happen!), gypsies and their place in the Land play a large, and intriguing, part. And so does Dragon, the mysterious child discovered in the Beforetime ruins who turned out to be an immensely powerful coercer.
The narrative continues to follow Elspeth and her somewhat torturous groping after her destiny as presented to her by the Agyllian birds, as well as the Misfits of Obernewtyn striving towards acceptance, or at least not open hatred, in the Land. For Elspeth this means travelling away from Obernewtyn for much of the book, meeting new people – gypsies and foreigners amongst them – and experiencing a wide variety of responses to herself and the things she has to say. For the Misfits it means confronting the unTalented rebels also present in the Land, and whether the Talented have a place with them or not.
The word ashling refers to a sort of dream, and dreams play a prominent role here, especially when Elspeth discovers the dreamtrails. This is a really interesting aspect of the world Carmody has created for her Talents, although not many can access them or understand how they work.
This is a third book in what has turned out to be a six-book series, and to some extent it suffers from classic middle book syndrome. It doesn’t really start anything, and it certainly doesn’t bring any real resolution (except in one matter). It definitely doesn’t stand alone, not least because there’s not much effort to explain Obernewtyn and the Misfits, because much more infodump would have made me very impatient. What it does do well, though, is character development. Elspeth is of course the focus – she’s telling the story, after all, and apparently the fate of the world actually does rest on her. But other characters do become more well-rounded. Dragon, the foundling who is gradually being civilised; Matthew, the impetuous and romantic farseeker, has a big role to play; Kella, the healer, whose feelings and attitudes are perhaps the most complex of the lot. And then there’s Brydda, the rebel, who plays Big Bluff Larrikin but whom Carmody rescues from buffoon by giving him gentleness and wisdom as well.
It’s not a perfect book; it’s definitely a bit slow going in some parts, and could have done with some better editing. Still, enjoyable.