About a month ago, a book called The Sending, by Australian writer Isobelle Carmody, was spotted in libraries a month ahead of its official release date. Far from the steel chains, security guards and on-pain-of-death secrecy surrounding the final Harry Potter book, the 756-page, penultimate instalment of the much loved Obernewtyn series had made it into the world without much fuss. But at fan site Obernewtyn.net, a number of the community’s 2799 members were buzzing with the unexpected news. They had, after all, been waiting for the book for three years. In a sense, some might have been waiting for almost twenty-five years.
Rewind to my childhood. My school library introduced me to many of my all-time favourite books, among them the usual suspects: Jane Eyre, Matilda, Pride and Prejudice (okay, also the Sweet Valley High books). But the first of its offerings to give me a taste of the book-groupie syndrome that would stand me in good stead for the Harry Potters was a small, unassuming paperback: Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn.
Obernewtyn, published in 1987, tells the story of an orphan, Elspeth Gordie, whose world bears the poisonous scars of a recent nuclear tragedy. Elspeth is suspected of having ‘mutant powers’ – she can read minds and speak with animals in her head – which are frowned upon by the governing Council and a dangerously cultish faction called the Herders. But someone, at least, is interested in these powers: mysterious people come to take her away into the mountains, to a castle called Obernewtyn.
I don’t remember if I’d read fantasy books before Obernewtyn – I might have been nine or ten years old – but I was hooked. Carmody, the eldest of eight children, told stories to keep her younger siblings in line, and the series reveals that she is an enchanting storyteller, capable of winning characterisation and emphatic world-building. Elspeth’s resilience and resourcefulness are the equal of Jane Eyre’s, and opened my young eyes to selfless heroism. The old dictum ‘books are friends’ also definitely applied here; as Mandy Brett, judging Obernewtyn for the Meanjin Tournament of Books, quipped: ‘The loner protagonist with powers is a classic wish-fulfilment vehicle for bookish adolescent girls.’
My history with the series meant that the release of The Sending had loomed on my reading horizon since its predecessor, The Stone Key, was released in 2008. And now that it’s here, and I’ve read it, I’m in some pain. Of course, part of the tragedy is that one of my longest-standing relationships is coming slowly to an end; I’ll now have to turn elsewhere for examples of interspecies parlay. But it’s not only that: The Sending is damnably slow, partly due to a HP7-like decision to split the final book into two, which leaves – I assume – the bulk of the action to the forthcoming seventh volume. This means that most of The Sending is made up of a long journey – fires lit, beasts encountered, friends well met – punctuated liberally with plot recaps that are wearying for a reader who’s familiar with the series. Yes, it’s a return to a known and beloved world, but it didn’t deliver the satisfaction I was expecting.
What effect did this hiccup have on my fifteen-year journey as Elspeth’s comrade? Not much, it turns out. Though I’m disappointed with the latest segment of the adventure, I know there’s not long to go until I find out how it will end for Elspeth. She’s not like other childhood friends, whose news one is happy gleaning from Facebook updates and social pages snaps. No, a friendship like this can only be appropriately farewelled like this: me wrapped in a Snuggie and clasping the final book, which hopefully weighs at least a kilogram; processed snacks at hand; rain beating on the window; and a do-not-disturb sign on the door. Until then, Elspeth.
Estelle Tang is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings.