by Jane Lindskold
Cover Artist: Sam Weber
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317001
Date: 11 November 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Thirteen Orphans, the first book in an ongoing series by the author of the Through Wolf's Eyes series has an unusual premise. Set in the present day, the book is based on Chinese astrology and characters do magic with mah-jong tiles. Although the first book in a series, Lindskold provides a resolution for the initial situation before turning everything on its head to prepare for the next book.
The book begins with college-student Brenda Morris taken by her father to visit a family friend Albert Yu. But when they arrive at his shop, Yu is missing and the office – including a mah-jong game, in disarray. Instead of calling the police Brenda's father calls Auntie Pearl, a former child star who worked with Shirley Temple. Pearl tells Brenda that her family, Yu's family, and the Morris' family are part of the Thirteen Orphans, each with powers based on the Chinese Zodiac. Brenda's family is the Rat and Pearl is a Tiger. Descendents of 12 advisers to an emperor, plus the deposed heir, the Orphans fled to China, then Japan, and the United States. But when Yu, the descendent of the emperor, arrives, he is somewhat different from the person Pearl knows and has no memory of the Thirteen Orphans or their magic. So, Pearl, Brenda, and her father decide they need to warn the other families. Brenda and her father locate the heir to the Dog family, but the three are attacked and the father stripped of his memory of magic and the Orphans.
Brenda and two of the younger Orphans are taken to be trained in magic by Des, the current Rooster. After Pearl defeats an attacker, turning his own memory-erasing spells on him, Brenda finds herself attracted to the now amnesiac young man they have named Foster. Ultimately, Brenda is given a choice, if she will betray the other Orphans and turn Foster over to the enemy, they will give her a spell to restore her father's memory.
The magic system is fairly low-key, based on the tiles of mah-jong, bracelets, spells on paper, and calling on the wind and animal spirits. The experienced Orphans are surprised when Brenda starts manifesting some of the powers of her family since her father is still alive and the powers are normally passed down to an heir at death. Unlike too many books where the main character defeats far more experienced magic users for no reason other than being the main character, the author is careful not to make Brenda too powerful. Her victories are more due to her brains and determination. Lindskold is careful to present her as a modern American woman in contrast to Pearl's issues with her father's disappointment at having a woman for his heir.
While a knowledge of mah-jong will enhance the reader's understanding of the book, Lindskold is careful to provide explanations of how the game works. This reader has no knowledge whatsoever of the rules of the game but only felt lost in one scene when Brenda accidentally stumbles on a dangerous sequence of tiles.
The basic premise of the novel may seem familiar, a young woman learns about her heritage and powers. Of course, this is done in part so that the writer has an excuse to explain things to the audience. Still, the slow revelations work here, especially as even the experienced Orphans have little idea why they are under attack and who is behind this. Gradually, as the book goes on, Brenda gains confidence in herself and her abilities, but still has much to learn.
A sequel, Nine Gates, is tentatively scheduled for August 2009, but nothing has been said about how many books will be in the series.
I highly recommend Thirteen Orphans to readers who like urban fantasy, stories where brains are as important as powers, and just a touch of romance.