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Literature / The Obernewtyn Chronicles

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The Obernewtyn Chronicles is an Australian series of speculative fiction novels by Isobelle Carmody set in a world ravaged by a disaster known only as the Great White (presumably a nuclear holocaust). Once the fire stopped raining from the sky, a ruling Council was formed. About the same time, there was a sudden rise in deformed births in both livestock and humans. Afraid of what had just happened, the Council ruled that all mutants, human and animals, should be killed immediately, as would anyone trying to rebel against the Council. They soon founded a new religion, the Herder Faction, which preached the benefits of a natural, puritanical lifestyle and gruesome death to anyone who deviated from the norm.

The books follow the adventures of Elspeth Gordie, a teenage girl in an orphanage for the children of executed criminals. After establishing the mood of the world, the mysterious Madam Vega arrives. She quickly finds Elspeth's secret: she's telepathic, which makes her a Misfit, who are normally used as slave labor on remote concentration camps Councilfarms. Instead, Elspeth is sent to Obernewtyn, to be part of a research project to 'heal' these Misfits.

The series falls smack dab in the middle of Science Fantasy, with what is fairly obviously a nuclear apocalypse in the backstory and more than a few Beforetimes machines being essential to the plot, yet the Psychic Powers and attitude are given a strong fantasy interpretation. Similarly, the tone is very dark, but hard work does occasionally pay off.


There are seven books in the series:

  • Obernewtyn (1987)
  • The Farseekers (1990)
  • Ashling (1995)
  • The Keeping Place (1999)
  • The Stone Key (2008). Split into Wavesong and The Stone Key for the US/Canadian market.
  • The Sending (2011).
  • The Red Queen (2015)

This series provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Lots, but Elspeth stands out.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Teknoguild expeditions consist of these.
  • AI Is A Crap Shoot: Yeah... taking all the immense weaponry of an advanced human race and putting it under the control of a Master Computer who would use the weapons to annihilate any country that could be seen as threatening the Earth was so not clever. The damn thing monitors the Balance Of Terror! Did anyone, besides Cassy really not think this through?
    • Played With however when we find out in the last book that the error really arose because factions in the government who were receiving political funding from arms manufacturers attempted to sabotage the project. The cataclysm occurred because the prototype system recognised the back door that had been programmed into it, therefore saw itself as a threat to impartiality, fired the weapons at itself and thus triggered a chain reaction in response to this attack. Without this human corruption, the original program may have worked perfectly, something supported by the fact that the second, completed version of the program willingly shuts itself down when Elspeth reasons with it!
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  • All Nations Are Superpowers: The five global powers before the Great White.
  • Animal Talk: Animals "speak" in telepathic images
  • Apocalypse How: Takes place several generations after a Civilisation Extinction/Class 2 apocalypse.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Carmody has admitted she cut up a map of the world and shuffled it up to create her mental map of the Land. But it's not the kind of series where this is hugely concerning.
  • Astral Projection: A few people. Elspeth is proficient and Maruman is a master.
  • Bad Powers, Bad People: Subverted. Many coercers can stun or cause intense pain, but only one can kill with only a thought. Two if you count Elspeth's brother. They're actually quite nice, once you get to know them. The protagonist's one too.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The Seeker and the Destroyer, amongst other things.
  • Becoming the Mask: Domick/Mika.
  • Benevolent Precursors: (Warning, MAJOR SPOILER!) The Guannette birds, who the Beforetime government first experimented on, with the result that they have mental powers that exceed any human except Elspeth. They stuck around after the Great White and are trying to make sure that humans wouldn't be stupid enough to reactivate the weaponmachines and cause a second holocaust.
  • Berserk Button: Touch Elspeth and Rushton will kill you. If he thinks she is dead (which happens a couple of times), expect him to move through Heroic BSoD to Death Seeker mode very quickly.
  • Betty and Veronica: Elspeth (Archie) to Rushton's Veronica and Dameon's Betty.
  • Big Good: Atthis.
  • Break the Cutie: Cameo (book 1), and Kella (book 3).
  • Burn the Witch!: The Herders just love that Kill It with Fire approach.
  • Call on Me: When, in The Stone Key, she thinks that she is drowning, Elspeth calls out Maruman’s name in despair. Due to an ancient prophecy, this then unintentionally summons a shipfish (dolphin) who is able to save her. She later invokes this when needing to quickly get from Herder Isle to the west coast.
  • Cats Are Magic: Maruman looks like an ordinary, elderly cat but due to beforetime experimentation he has a unique mind where "all levels are one" and is the most powerful Astral psychic in the series, fully capable of fighting off even Ariel and Lidge on the dreamtrails.
  • Cats Are Snarky: Oh, Maruman...
  • Chekhov's Gun: There are many in each book, but some span multiple books:
    • Obernewtyn's doors. Introduced in the very first book, and still paying off in book 5.
    • Chekhov's Gunman: Daffyd. You know that short conversation he had with Elspeth at the beginning of book one? It pays off at the end of book two.
      • In fact, Chekhov's Army comes into play by books 3 and 4. You know all those minor characters that keep walking around and occasionally interrupting things? If there is a description or a name given of them, they will be significant in some way later on (there is a reason why, for books 3 and 4, there's an index of character names.
    • Chekhov's Skill: Darga's ability to sense tainted water.
    • Chekhov M.I.A.: Ariel. In fact, he probably counts as a Chekhov's Boomerang, considering the number of times seemingly insignificant things related to him at the time being ridiculously significant later.
      • Also Darga and Elspeth herself at times.
    • Someday This Will Come in Handy: Combines with Chekhov's Gun - if a concept, objective, or skill is talked about, shown, or demonstrated in passing at the beginning of the book, it will come in handy later. Sometimes even books later.
    • You Will Know What to Do: Atthis, Marylon, and most of the futurteller Guild operate on this premise. Expect Maruman and Gahltha to hand out similar predictions. They show up so often that it becomes a constant source of irritation and frustration for Elspeth (but she's Genre Savvy enough to know that if they say something seemingly small or insignificant it will probably have weight later on).
    • Chekhov's Boomerang: The Guannette birds, Obernewtyn, the front doors of Obernewtyn, and the wolves.
  • The Chosen One: Elspeth. For aboutfour different mythos and counting. The only one she's actually accepted is Atthis and the Agyllians' prediction. The rest she's refused to accept, despite the fact that they frequently turn up on her doorstep.
  • Corrupt Church: The Herder faction. They skate the line of Religion of Evil but don't exactly cross over because the baseline values they exposit aren't specifically evil (although warped beyond belief), and their work is in the name of a benevolent (if harsh) god who looks after and loves the people who follow him. Unfortunately their pitch is that their god (and hence them by extension) can damn the ones who don't follow them. They preach that their way is the right and good way, and anyone who says otherwise is lying, insane, or possessed (by demons). However, their end aim is total domination, suppression of anything resembling free will, and zealous power complete with concentration camps, denouncements and burning alive anyone who is different or who opposes them. They honestly think they are helping the Land to a good end, free and pure to be worthy of Ludd. Everyone else who isn't delusional thinks they are tyrannical oppressors whose torture skills are horrific enough to earn the entire order a permanent place beyond the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Crapsack World: Between the oppressive Council and the toxic Blacklands, there's not a lot of room for hope in the Land.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Blocking pain. See Determinator below
  • Determinator: Coercers can force themselves to completely ignore pain for brief periods. When their concentration breaks, though, they feel all the blocked pain at once. This can kill the user.
  • Disk-One Final Boss: Alexi. However, his assistant Ariel gets a nice introduction, which gives the audience an idea of the kind of things they will be treated to later on
  • Dramatic Irony: A lot. Despite the first person narrative, the reader gets a much clearer scope of things than any of the characters, and is able to piece things together much, much faster than the characters (usually this is justified because Elspeth discounts or forgets anything that happens in dreams/dream trails or the minds of others that she probes), however, justified or not, it can get a little annoying. This is especially the case when Elspeth, hovering about the mindstream, sees a memory of the past depicting Hannah Seraphim and Jacob Obernewtyn while they are talking about: escaping from the government's Talent-testing unit, the fact that they are associated with Misfit Talents, the Reichler clinic, the coming of the Great White, how the mountains will be safe, and how Cassandra predicted the whole thing with futuretelling. Yes, because none of those things are ever going to be relevant in this series. It gets even worse when Swallow talks about the ancient promises and the tattoo that just conveniently happens to be the same one used by the government division investigating the possible weaponizing of Misfits in the Beforetime, featuring Guanette birds circling, you know, the birds that happen to have ridiculously skilled mental powers?. By the time you get to Sador where we find carvings which just so happened to be made by the same person who carved the doors of Obernewtyn, who was called "Kassanda", and who just happened to be able to predict the future, it reaches wall banger territory. Not all of these are ultimately resolved either, it becomes obvious to the reader that Jacob named his daughter after Hannah and it was she who carried her mother's bones to Jacob's grave, set up Habitat, etc, but Elspeth and crew never figure this out.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Futuretellers enter a meditative trance when making their predictions, while Elspeth gets her share of prophetic dreams from the Guanette birds.
  • The Empath: Lots of them, but Dameon and Ariel are very prominent.
  • Enemy Within: Domick leaves Obernewtyn as a spy and takes on the identity of a Council torturer called Mika. Mika becomes his own personality and begins to dominate Domick shortly afterwards.
  • Fantastic Racism: By Landfolk towards mutants, gypsies and outsiders. Can cross over into Have You Tried Not Being a Monster? with individuals.
  • Fantastic Recruitment Drive: The antagonists and the protagonists both at some point seek out Misfit children, to attend Obernewtyn.
  • Ghost City: Lots. But notably the city under Tor in The Farseekers.
  • Healing Factor: Elspeth gets one of these at the end of the second book, but keeps it a secret.
  • Heel–Face Turn: A few, but Jes' betrayal is particularly harsh.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Quite a few people. Notables are Elspeth, Sharna, Maruman, Matthew... okay, so more than a few people either sacrifice their lives or freedom for their cause. It's that kind of series.
  • Ignored Expert: In the Beforetime, Hannah Seraphim, the Reichler Clinic and their associates. The Government probably should have listened, in hindsight.
  • Journey to the Center of the Mind: Dragon's recurring dream.
    • In a variation of the trope, this can also be applied to the Dreamtrails.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Coercers can remove memories or construct false ones.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Nobody knows the exact extent of Elspeth's powers, and she tends to downplay them to avoid any awkwardness, or have to explain things that she'd rather not. She'll even let others believe she's defective or stupid if it will serve her purpose. However, if you piss her off she will wipe out your every thought from existence or kill you where you stand. God help you if you threaten someone close to her.
  • The Lifestream
  • Light Is Not Good: Given that the Great White nearly destroyed the world, you would expect this. Ariel delivers.
  • Lost Technology: Devices from the Beforetime fill this role on a few occasions.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Happens repeatedly. It's a long time before the mantle of Big Bad ever settles, and we're still not entirely sure.
  • Meaningful Name: These are everywhere.
    • In The Sending, a character dies essentially of despair; it's Angina, whose name comes from a heart condition characterised by a pressing, strangling feeling in the chest.
    • A character named Dell ends up working with computers.
    • Ariel is the name of an angel, in line with his general Light Is Not Good characterisation.
    • Cassandra. Although the short story ''The DarkRoad'' shows that it is actually Hannah who had the visions and was simply giving Cassandra instructions.
  • Mental Fusion: Farseekers are able to form a mindmerge to increase their range. The traditional method uses a group of farseekers pooling their energy to boost the signal of one member, and is limited by the number of minds the sender is able to link with simultaneously (Rushton's one Talent is the ability to combine any number of minds in this way, although he can't farseek himself). Then Aras comes up with a new method whereby trios of farseekers link to each other then to two other groups, forming a conduit for an unlinked mind to 'slide' along without using up their own energy. In this way, Elspeth is able to farseek all the way from just outside Obernewtyn to Sutrium, half way across the Land.
  • Messianic Archetype: Beast legends speak of Innle, a human who will lead the beasts to freedom from their slavery. Maruman, Elspeth's mad old cat, has decided that Elspeth is this saviour. He's right.
  • Mind over Manners: The Coercers and Farseekers try their best to live by this. Success is varied.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Beforetimers.
  • No Woman's Land: Gadfia, the Fantasy Counterpart Culture to the Middle East.
  • One World Order: The Council. The Evil kind. The caveat on this is that according to them the Land is the only place on earth left habitable. This isn't true, but they tend to kill or kidnap and enslave anyone who says otherwise. Ironically, the Council, having abolished slavery, can only sell the slaves to the places they're trying to deny exist.
  • Orphanage of Fear: The Council's orphanages are for the children of rebels and Misfits. They are not nice places.
  • Power Incontinence: Powerful empaths can't avoid sensing what nearby people are feeling. Dameon feels actual pain if the emotions are negative and strong enough.
  • Prophecy Pileup: Elspeth is the Seeker responsible for finding and destroying the weaponmachines. She is also supposed to lead the animals to the freerunningbarud and is significant in the gipsies’ secret ancient promises. The dolphins also have a prophecy/promise that they must come to her aid when she says a certain word.
  • Psychic Powers: In many varieties, given straightforward names. Beastspeakers, Coercers, Empaths, Farseekers, Futuretellers and Teknoguilders all play important roles in the plot so far.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Elspeth almost always ends up at the head of one of these. And we couldn't resist the pun.
  • Rebellious Rebel: A passive version is Gilaine and the other Misfits in the Druid’s camp. The Druid is rebelling against the Council but is if anything even more fanatically opposed to Misfits.
    • After the Battlegames, the Obernewtyn Misfits become this to the main rebellion, and force them to look closer at what their plans actually involve.
  • The Reveal: Dragon is the daughter of the Red Queen.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: In The Farseekers Elspeth's expedition can't travel on the main roads due to the Corrupt Church's Burn the Witch! policy. They therefore decide to take an "olden way" through the mountains instead of the main pass. It turns out the reason no-one uses that route anymore is that it is now (after the Great White) extremely difficult to travel due to multiple landscape obstacles plus dangerous levels of radiation.
    • When they can't at first find the olden way they Take a Third Option. By rafting down a river swollen by torrential rains, through a radioactive Ghost City and down a waterfall.
  • Samaritan Syndrome: Poor Kella. When the plague hit Sutrium in Ashling she, being the only Healer in the city, tried to save as many people as possible. Consequently she almost had a nervous breakdown, not breaking to eat or sleep, trying to heal everyone. And then the Herders started burning those infected with the plague alive. This finally caused her to crack and descend into a Heroic BSoD.
  • Scars are Forever: Played with throughout the series. Initially played straight, especially with Elspeth's scarred feet, which are very painful, until the Eldar Agyllian healer taught her body how to heal itself, hence subverting the trope to hell and back. However this power comes at a price: that she can never scar again, which she only finds out after she spent an entire night in agony getting a tattoo ingrained into her skin, which later disappears without a trace.
  • Schedule Slip: Twenty eight frickin' years between the first book and the last one. Some fans who read the first book in primary school are now in their mid-to-late thirties. As one of them put it, "Game of Thrones fans have nothing on us."
  • Science Fantasy: A mostly fantasy plot in a more sci-fi setting make this difficult to classify as either.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Beastspeakers use this to ask nearby animals for their help. Since the animals didn't have an authoritarian dictatorship or religious fanatics, though, the animals oral traditions are a better historical record than the humans'.
  • Superior Species: the Agyllians, whose superior intellects and Talents becomes yet another Chekhov's Gun later in the series. This is probably one of the more successful versions of this trope, considering that there is a really good reason why they are like that.
  • Technopath: Some Misfits have an instinctive affinity for technology, though they do spend a reasonable amount of time figuring out what it actually does.
  • Torture Technician: Mika and Ariel. For Ariel it goes beyond Nightmare Fetishist territory, heads straight through Squick, and makes a stop somewhere out beyond the Moral Event Horizon. You thought he was bad in book one? It gets worse.
  • Twin Telepathy: Miky and Angina.
  • Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: When asked to present his views at the Halfmoon Bay Cheiftain selections, Rolf starts by saying that he is only a simple blacksmith, then goes on to eloquently and passionately describe what he would wish for the new chieftain to do. This prompts the audience to immediately vote him in.
  • Unperson: Anyone declared a Misfit immediately loses all rights as a citizen.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Elspeth is this to the Agyllians, who far, far surpass her in skill and finesse, but not in brute strength.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The various rebel leaders all act pretty much idenpendently, and have rather different ideas about both methods and what they want to happen afterwards (in particular who will replace the Council. Eventually resolves into Malik and cronies reluctantly and temporarily agreeing with everyone else. Or at least pretending to...
  • Willfully Weak: Elspeth. Despite having extraordinary mental prowess as a farseeker, coercer, and beastspeeker, she restrains and limits her use of her killing power (which comes from the raw centre of power deep within her mind), making her considerably weaker than she would be if she used her full potential (mostly because she's afraid at what might happen if she looses control of it). That said, if you threaten her True Companions, she will throw her entire arsenal of considerable power at the situation.
  • Work Info Title: It's calling itself The Obernewtyn Chronicles.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: From what the reader knows of the Agyllians, the incredibly complex series of events that resolve from one small trigger, tend to be influenced and manipulated by them with finesse to achieve their goals, despite the fact that a lot of these triggering events are random and can't possibly be predicted without futuretelling. As a result there are a couple of conclusions that can be reasoned: 1) Due to futuretelling, the entire sequence of events was planned out from the start, meaning that Atthis is a Chessmaster running a Gambit Roulette that works due to said fortunetelling; 2) Atthis is running Xanatos Speed Chess, dealing with opportunities and danger as they arise; or 3) the individual sequence of events are only vaguely manipulated based on the (fairly accurate) predictions of human interaction, and most of the time, a Batman Gambit is employed. YMMV on which, or Take a Third Option.