This review contains spoilers for the previous five books.
It’s important to say at the outset that this is not the book I thought it was.
This is not the final book of the Obernewtyn Chronicles.
I knew that Carmody had wanted to split the last book in half, to properly tell Elspeth’s story; I thought that meant books 5 and 6. No. It meant books 6 and 7 – number 7 being The Red Queen, due out next year. I realised that this book could not be the final one with around 100 pages (of 750) to go. Having just inhaled the other five in preparation for a grand finale, it’s fair to say that I was a little peeved when I came to that realisation. I will try not to let this frustration colour my review….
Let’s recap where we left Elspeth and the Misfits in 2008, with the last book (The Stone Key). Dragon, heir to the Red Queen, is missing, as is Miryum the coercer-knight with the body of her would-be suitor Straaka.The farseeker Matthew is still a slave in the Red Lands. The rebels have destroyed the Council and set up a democracy in its place, with many of them being elected in their cities; the Misfits are slowly, slowly being accepted by society. The Herder Faction has been routed from Herder Isle (sorry, Norseland) thanks to Elspeth. Elspeth has broken Ariel’s hold over Rushton, so there’s no more agonising over he loves me/he loves me not. Sador is basically friends with the Land, and they’ve agreed to send ships to the Red Land to help stop Salamander and the slave trade. Anything else? Maruman is as cranky as ever and oh, Elspeth is only a little closer to having all the necessary keys for stopping a second holocaust from happening.
Elspeth’s quest as Seeker has dominated the plot of the last couple of books; her attempts to find the keys and signs Cassandra left behind have been the motivating force behind most of her actions. Either that, or instructions from the futuretellers, which themselves generally move her quest forward too. The pattern seems set to continue here, with Elsepth having raced home at the end of book 5 on instructions from the oldOnes. Then, for the first half of the book, she finds that she must hurry up and wait as Seeker, while fulfilling her function as Guildmistress and master of Obernewtyn in Rushton’s absence. Important things are happening around her: politically, there are moves to ensure Obernewtyn’s place in the Land is confirmed; people come and go, unexpectedly or not; relationships are formed and changed and, in some cases, severed. But the Seeker’s quest seems a bit stalled, because although the ships are getting ready to go to the Red Lands, where Elspeth and futuretellers have seen Elspeth and Dragon together, Elspeth does not have all of the necessary keys to stop Sentinel from awakening. Plus, Dragon is still missing. Which is a problem.
The first half is light on big action scenes. Some of the most interesting action continues to happen in Elspeth’s dreams, where she learns yet more about the Beforetimers, Cassandra and Hannah (although I was disappointed to see that the publishers have altered the formatting, such that the dreams are no longer in smaller type; this was a marvellous way of making such an experience obviously different from the waking world). That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the first half, because Carmody is by and large a skilful writer who makes it very easy to convince one’s self to ‘just read one more chapter’ (although her love scenes are a bit perfunctory). And as I mentioned, there are important things happening – it’s just that most of them in the personal arena, which the Obernewtyn Chronicles really focus on the most. While there have been major battles and a revolution in the preceding books, Carmody has shown herself to be far more interested in people: how they react to falling in love, losing a loved one, meeting foreigners, having prejudices challenged, or running a small community. Or, indeed, being told that you are the only hope for the world in the face of a second holocaust (no pressure). I do think that this volume could have been trimmed down, because there was a lot of repetition of Elspeth bemoaning her fate and going over and over the things she has learnt and still must find out. I understand that that’s probably quite realistic – humans, as Maruman is fond of saying, do constantly gnaw at things, usually unhelpfully. It just got a little boring.
The second half changes things, although I can’t explain how or why without spoiling things terribly. Just take my word for it. There’s a bit more action, a few revelations and a couple of resolutions, as well as a whole new raft of problems to deal with. Unsurprisingly. There is some character development, although Elspeth’s development as a human has stalled somewhat. She doesn’t seem to change much any more, especially in comparison with the first three books. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, given she was in her late teens then and there were major upheavals in her life to force change – but I certainly didn’t stop changing when I got to my twenties. Perhaps this too is a result of her quest having not quite stalled, but certainly slowed down.
I have been and remain determined to see Elspeth’s quest to the end, but it would be harder to continue reading if the world’s history were not so enthralling. It’s a post-nuclear holocaust world, and I love that, unlike a book such as John Wyndham’s Chrysalids, mind powers are not a result of mutation caused by that holocaust. Carmody keeps revealing more and more of the Beforetime, the end of which is some time – possibly centuries – into our own future. (It’s depressing to think that there might still be a need for a balance of terror at that point.) The hints that Carmody gives about cryogenics, and gene storage, and computers, are really cleverly done. I seriously hope there is resolution of Cassandra’s story, and Hannah’s, as well as Elspeth’s, in Red Queen. The world itself – or at least ‘the Land’, where Elspeth lives – is perhaps a little hampered by having initially been developed by Carmody as a teen; I don’t find it that rich or compelling. The lands of Sador and the Red Lands, introduced later in the series, are certainly more foreign and interesting. (I presume I am not the only one who spends half their time trying to figure out where in our world these places correspond to.)
This is not a stand-alone book, so do not pick it up if you’re curious about Carmody’s work. If you have been on this journey with Elspeth for a while now and are desperate to see just how Carmody is going to tie all of those threads together, then of course you have to read it… but, I would suggest, wait for the last book to be published.
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.