Monday, June 27, 2011

What We're Reading: Isobelle Carmody

I first read Australian writer Isobelle Carmody about a year ago when I picked up Alyzon Whitestarr, a stand-alone contemporary fantasy novel written (in 2005) for a young adult audience. I thought the premise of the book was so interesting that I have book-talked it to many teens since. The main character, Alyzon, sustains a head injury, and when she wakes up, her sense of smell has been heightened. But there's more to it--she actually smells character and emotions. She is dismayed to discover, for instance, that the most popular boy in school, on whom she has had a crush for years, puts forth the disgusting scent of rotting meat, while her father smells like caramelized sugar when he is happy and like ammonia when he is stressed or worried. It's a handy, though somewhat disconcerting, skill to have, but soon she has to put it to use against, as they say, "dark forces."

When I recommended the book recently, one of the teens asked me if she had written anything else, which is when I discovered Carmody's Obernewtyn series. Carmody started writing the first book at age 14, and has followed up with four published sequels, with another to come out this year and one next year. If you are one of those people who finishes a book and immediately wants to read the sequel, Carmody would have driven you crazy: The first book was published in 1997, the next three at three- to five-year intervals, and then she waited a full 10 years before beginning on the last three! But now she seems to be turning them out at a more common one-per-year pace, and if you are just starting, you have a few to read while waiting for the next, which is due out this year.

The setting of the science fiction series is a post-apocalyptic world in which radiation and chemicals have wiped out much of the population and poisoned the land and water. Survivors have built an agrarian culture ruled by a Council and two police forces, one secular and one religious, whose prime directives are a ban on all technology and the pursuit of normalcy. But, presumably as a result of the Great White (as they call the nuclear holocaust of the past), many humans have mutated and possess special powers--empathy, mind-reading, far-seeing, mind-speaking with animals, and scrying the future. These Misfits are persecuted and sometimes put to death by the repressive rulers in their quest for uniformity. The story follows one Mistfit, Elspeth Gordie, as she is sent to a prison farm called Obernewtyn, only to find many like her with whom she can perhaps unite to change all their lives.

Carmody has also written several other series for children, including the Little Fur books, as well as five picture books. She has been nominated for more than a dozen awards for her writing, and the accolades contained in the cover blurbs on Obernewtyn from such sci fi royalty as Tamora Pierce, Andre Norton, and Charles de Lint made her irresistible to me. (Plus, I'm a sucker for a mind-reading cat.) You can find out more about her at

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