Learning from the best with ‘Obernewtyn’


With the recent long-awaited release of ‘The Red Queen’ by Isobelle Carmody, I decided it was time to have a look where the Obernewtyn Chronicles began – way back in 1987 with ‘Obernewtyn’. I have friends that are human, and I also have wonderful friends that just happen to be books. ‘Obernewtyn’ is one of these.

I was a very Y YA when I first picked up this book, and it took a few years and a junk mail run before I’d scrimped enough money to buy a copy of my own. That was 1994. My copy is the one pictured above. I know. Old school. I’ve carried this much-loved book around with me for decades.


Why did it work so well? How could one amazing book create such a following that Penguin didn’t care that it took three decades and many unexpected books to conclude?

Up and down with the suspense

Reading it again, I was once again drawn in by the magic way Carmody takes us on a rollercoaster through ever-increasing trepidation, giving several periods of respite, where our heroine Elspeth manages to relax just enough so that when the fear factor goes up a notch or twelve it feels even worse and you have to keep reading.

Literally, have to. No stopping.


Talk about world-building. The first chapter is 11 pages long and introduces 11 characters, the religious structure of the post-apocalyptic society Elspeth lives in, enough of Elspeth’s character that we warm to her, and uses Elspeth’s reactions to an outspoken fellow-orphan to show us the danger she lives under. And nothing seems forced. So subtle. Beautiful.

There is actually an introduction, something you don’t see all that often anymore, but I don’t think it’s needed. You can live and breathe the Land, and pick bits of it from between your teeth, straight away. The reader is thrown right in the deep end of the chasm from the start.

We go on Elspeth’s journey, spending the first 15% of the novel in the orphan homes, fearing discovery, isolated, pretending. It is a total relief to be selected by Vega to be taken to Obernewtyn, even though everything we have heard tells us we don’t want to go there. That’s how clever Carmody is with this book. Sowing the seeds of a future where Obernewtyn is a force for good. I don’t think we could accept that so well if we had been positioned to fear it completely from the start.

The journey takes another 10%, and when it ends at Obernewtyn we understand Elspeth when she tells us ‘the sight of it chilled me more effectively than all the Blacklands in the land.’ Brrr.

Who should we fear?

It is so cold inside those dark stone walls, you need a rug to read on. And almost straight away we meet Ariel. Page 74 of 248. Spotlight on our antagonist. This evil has a name and an angelic face.

Who should we want?

Another rest period, if you can call slaving in the kitchens a rest, but we need it so that we’re as excited as Elspeth when the opportunity to be on the farms comes up. Cue Love Interest – Rushton. Page 88. As a reader, I feel secure if I know who to take a special interest in. Bad guy identified, good guy in place, tick.

But why are we here again?

Not long after we’re puzzling over Rushton’s green eyes, just in case you thought things might be going okay for Elspeth, Part II comes around. It’s blatantly called ‘The Heart of the Darkness’. Oh man, where’s my chocolate block?

Rule-breaking and Friend-making

The stakes go up immediately in Part II. Elspeth is not alone. She meets fellow Misfits Matthew and Dameon.

How nice, you think.

No! More to lose! Hints of what seethes under Obernewtyn’s unassuming exterior, escalating bad dreams. All through this novel, things just keep escalating. But Carmody makes sure we don’t get bogged down in it.

Cue some Rule-Breaking. Elspeth plots to escape, she breaks her promise not to talk about The Doctor, she steals into his Chamber at night, she jokes with her friends. The reader doesn’t want to read about and dream of a hideous world with no fun. You need friendship.

Friends are integral to YAs.

Feeling better now Elspeth is too? Bam! Carmody kills the brother! Elspeth suddenly doesn’t just have to worry about the Doctor, or Vega and Ariel. No, now she has the Council and the Herders after her too. And when Vega finds out about that… Totally not the time to put the book down.


Worried? So relax for just a moment, not even 10 pages. Then… Wham! Carmody has all her rescues tumble in together as the climax looms. Un-put-downable. The Council is coming, Cameo is missing, and Elspeth has to be saved by Rushton. And then minor character Sharna. She must journey through danger. She fails to save Cameo, and must then kill to save Rushton.

Which is perfect, because no YA protagonist kills without a good reason. So we still love her .

And I still love this book. Close to three decades on, and it still reels me in. The strength of it kept me buying each subsequent book, even after I felt they began to lose the crisp purpose and beautiful aim of the first. But did I buy the final installment? I’m sorry to say, I didn’t. Yet another case where the magic of a series can dilute and ramble in directions it perhaps shouldn’t have gone, and lose the readers it captured with its skillful start.

There’s only so much space on my bookcase. But always space for this book.


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