Darkfall- Book One of The Legendsong Isobelle Carmody
Cover by Mark Sofilas
Viking Penguin, 1997, tpb, 555pp, $24.95; Penguin, June 1998, 685pp, $16.95
Reviewed by Norman Talbot

Isobelle Carmody has for several years been one of the most intriguing of Australia's writers for young adults. Not only is her work outstanding in its evocation and control of an invented world and society, but her narration presents with equal precision the menace and emotional isolation that threaten her typical victim-heroes, and the vigorous positives heralding the happy ending that those heroes know is only dimly possible. Most readers come away from The Obernewtyn Chronicles more alert - if not necessarily more sanguine - about their world.

Her last book, the collection of stories, Green Monkey Dreams, seemed at times to fall between two audiences, so naturally the reviewer who picks up Darkfall, her first alternative-world fantasy for an adult readership, does so with expectation, even joyous anticipation. But such emotions are never unmixed: fear mingles with hope at the subtitle 'Book One of the Legendsong'.

The fear? Because industrious Fantasy and Space-Opera writers so frequently produce 'trilogies', or even longer series, offering not a generous exuberance of creative invention but an inconclusive, self-gratifying interminability. Worse, some do so to feed their publishers' dream of customers so helplessly enthralled by the continuing flow of sequels by Stevie R. Flypaper that they need never exchange contracts with any other writer, ever. The hope? That there are still writers that are genuine geomancers. Yes, I know that word used to have another meaning. For me, geomancers are subcreators whose exploration and comprehension of their invented worlds calls out the best from the interpretive imaginations of both writer and reader.

Because he was working on galley proofs, not a book whose cover would announce whether Darkfall were part of a trilogy or something else, this cowardly reviewer sneaked a look at the last few pages - and fear had a small victory. Far from this volume closing, like those of The Obernewtyn Chronicles, with a satisfying interim climax and resolution, the major characters haven't even got to the island of Darkfall that gives this volume its title! Looks as if one group of characters is just sailing off to it, passing another group that needs to talk to them. Oh no. Is this Volume One of another Great Grunt, another Drag-on Reborin?

Not so. Hope is justified: Carmody is a true geomancer. Not only Keltor but every one of its seven septs, each with its own island and magical skill, and even its distinct physique, is worthy of the maker's devotion. Better still, the protagonists are both splendid: two sisters from out world, thrown into Keltor by some mysterious power. Ember is a fiercely beautiful red-haired muso, whose inoperable tumour means she will soon go blind, and then die; her alternation of self-pity and selfless integrity is totally convincing. Glynne, a tone-deaf martial-arts devotee, is caught between directionless mourning for the suicide of her enigmatic guru and lover, and an unfocussed duty to protect her dying sister. But however intense, they are also most entertaining companions.

Explorers of alternative worlds need ignorant guides: a hobbit inn Lorien tells us more than a hobbit in the Shire. How can the sisters understand a world where political plotting is inseparable from myth-criticism? Glynne, fished from the open ocean and temporarily dumb, is brought to Acantha, the isle dominated by a woman called the Draaka, who opposes Keltor's central myth and faith, claiming that Lanilor's Charter and its attached myth, the Legendsong (to which the devoted soulweaver priestesses and their misty isle of Darkfall are vowed) are mad enfeebled superstitions. The Draaka, at first serenely purposeful, if coldly efficient, turns out to be driven by something far more chilling than the faith and communal purpose of the soulweavers. And Glynne, imprinted upon a fierce little animal, a pregnant fienna, becomes psychically entrapped in the Draaka's group!

The Draaka, like several more obviously self-interested people, including the mother of the Holder of all Keltor, wants to change the system of distribution and perpetuation of power. To this end, she and her teams of scholars and balladeers have leached the Lanilor myth of meaning by a range of sceptical, secular and artistic challenges, versions and perversions, culminating in inversion, so that the Unraveller, the recreative spirit from across the Void, for which Lanilor instructed the soulweavers to wait and work, is reinterpreted as either demon or mere fantasy, and the Void Guardian, whose ferocious vigilance obstructs its coming, is invoked as a protector. Therefore a 'visitor' from across the Void, like Glynne, must be exterminated at once: to admit her existence would prove there really was life, and non-demonic life, beyond the Void. She happens to resemble both Fomhika and Myrimidor septs in physique - at least to Acanthans, who rarely travel - but Fomhikans have music-magic, while she is tone deaf, and Myrmidon women, amazons intensely loyal to Darkfall, are almost as unwelcome as 'visitors' on Acantha.

Ember 'visits' Ramidan, where the Holder's palace is. Her story contrasts with Glynne's, of course,, but it is of course equally menacing, perhaps especially during the period when she has forgotten she is dying. Her story is left hanging at the end more than Glynne's, though. First, though a passionate musician, she does note play a note of music in Ramidan. Second, in a prison-break she is helped magically from beyond the Void, a pretended narrative flaw that the next volume will balance up. Third, though both sisters are accompanied and admired by an eligible and dashing young man, Glynne is bonded to Solen in a fine scene of transferred eroticism when the fienna dies in childbirth, but Ember's love-life, assuming she is spared to have one, seems more closely identified with the Beastman who segues in the Void than with poor handsome Bleyd...

Why am I gossiping about Ember's love-life? Because I'm hooked, needing the next volume already. Carmody magic works just as powerfully on her new audience, metamorphosing the entertained into the obsessively involved, the keenly apprehensive into the inwardly apprehending.

©1998 Norman Talbot.

Isobelle Carmody was born in 1958 in Victoria. She completed a Bachelor of Arts, before working in public relations and journalism. Carmody began work on her first novel in 1972, and it finally saw print in 1988 as Obernewtyn, first volume in the Obernewtyn Chronicles. Her subsequent novels have been well-received, with The Gathering, winning the 1994 Children's Book Council Book of the Year Award for older readers. Her other books include the remainder of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Farseekers and Ashling, as well as Scatterlings, Greylands, Darkfall: Book 1 of the Legendsong, and the collection Green Monkey Dreams.

Carmody recently delivered The Keeping Place, fourth volume of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, to Penguin for a December 1998 publication. A fifth volume, The Sending, is planned. Penguin will also publish Darksong: Book 2 of the Legendsong late in 1998.