Thirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When college sophomore Brenda Morris' father drags her along to meet eccentric chocolatier Albert Yu, they instead encounter a sinister plot to steal the memories of the Thirteen Orphans - the descendants of twelve advisors and their emperor, exiled long ago from a land of myth. Luckily, some of the senior Orphans have survived, in particular the aging Tiger, Pearl.
The greatest strength in this story is the setting and the way the characters interact with it. The Chinese zodiac determines the nature of each Orphan, while mahjong forms the basis of the magic, in an impressively outlined system. I didn't fully understand the rules despite the (lengthy - more on that later) explanations, but I felt grounded in their reality. The backstory of the Thirteen Orphans continues to unfold, treating the reader to glimpses of an intriguing otherworld. The Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice fascinated me.
I also enjoyed other, smaller aspects of the setting. Lindskold does a nice job of dealing with the idea that there are other magical systems in the world (of course there would be!) without needing to delve into them. Pearl's backstory as a child star contemporary of Shirley Temple was also one of my favorite bits, though there were a couple points where I thought it was laid on a bit too thick.
And some of the characters are great - particularly Nissa, the Rabbit, her daughter Noelani, and the developing personality of Foster. I also really liked Pearl. Even Brenda's down-to-earth character provided a pleasant enough pair of eyes to view this new world. And we need the outsider, because there's a lot of complexity here.
Which leads me to the downfall of Thirteen Orphans: too much information and too much talking without progression or conflict. See my last review here (A Coalition of Lions) - there's nothing to say that a story with a lot of dialogue and very little physical action can't be tense and riveting, but far too much of Thirteen Orphans was expository and day-to-day, the process of making amulets, discussion of the Land's history, and a lot of logistical discussions that probably could have been summarized. Of course, Brenda, Riprap and Nissa come into the story knowing no magic at all, but I think the lessons could have been highly truncated.
And then - far too late in the book - when action finally does strike, it cools off for a negotiation session. Now, this is actually closer to the kind of dialogue I mentioned above, but it's still symptomatic of the overall problem. Finally, to my exasperation, during a key sequence near the end where the characters are split into two groups, there is an absurdly in-depth analysis of the contents of an apartment.
That notwithstanding, the book ends with a great twist I did not see coming, and given some of the things I liked about this volume, I would definitely pick up Nine Gates. I am hoping that since the "initiation" happened in this book, that future volumes will be less talky.
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