The folklore of the British Isles, and of Western Europe in general, is well-trodden ground in fantasy fiction. So, when I heard that Jane Lindskold had begun a series based on Chinese mythology, I was eager to read it. It would be something fresh and unusual, and I’ve greatly enjoyed Lindskold’s writing in the past.
Thirteen Orphans is the first novel in the Breaking the Wall series, which I would classify as “old-school urban fantasy.” The phrase “breaking the wall” comes from the game of mah-jong, upon which much of the series’ magic system is based. Lindskold also incorporates the Chinese zodiac (each major character represents one of the animals) and several other aspects of Chinese lore. She has clearly done a great deal of research, and there are places where it shines. I really enjoyed the scene in which Brenda is playing mah-jong and draws the “Moon from the Bottom of the Sea” hand. This creates a metaphysical glow, and soon, the three-legged toad from the moon sees the new shiny object and drops by to threaten the characters. Lindskold puts all of the elements of her universe together seamlessly in this scene.
The story is told from two points of view. One point-of-view character is Pearl Bright, a septuagenarian and former child star who brings the various zodiac avatars together to combat a mysterious antagonist. Pearl is a really interesting character and I enjoyed spending time with her. Brenda Morris, the other point-of-view character, didn’t sit as well with me. A nineteen-year-old college student, she sometimes seems much younger due to her naïveté. Brenda somehow managed to grow up in South Carolina without ever conversing with a black person and is really weirded out when her teammate Riprap turns out to be African-American. In another scene, she labels another teammate, Nissa, as “easy,” for no reason I can discern other than that Nissa is a single mom. Then, Brenda decides she’s in love with a man she barely knows, and who may be a danger to her. Attraction, sure, but love?
The biggest problem with Thirteen Orphans, though, is too-much-exposition syndrome. It’s a “talky” book, and the dialogue is filled with infodumps about mah-jong, magical theory, the zodiac, Chinese history, and other subjects, and the result is that much of the dialogue is rather wooden. The characters don’t talk to each other naturally; they talk in lectures. Late in the book, one character even reprimands himself for infodumping:
- “You already know that although ability in the arcane arts is not limited to the Twelve Advisors of the Earthly Branches, special abilities accrue to those who take up the mantle of the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Hare…”
- “The Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Ram, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig,” Lani recited in a singsong voice. “I know those. Mama is a Hare, which is a Rabbit, too, and I will be one someday.”
- Righteous Drum blinked in mild astonishment at the interruption, then inclined his head toward the child. “So it is, and I find myself rebuked for repeating a lesson even a child knows.”
True, most children in the West wouldn’t know that, but certainly the reader does by now. This is on page 346 of the hardcover. It’s been explained in the narration, and each chapter heading is ornamented with a drawing of the zodiac. And every character in the room knows this information, too.
Thirteen Orphans has a self-contained plot, but it also contains a lot of set-up for the next book, Nine Gates, which I will be reading soon. I hope Nine Gates is less talky and more plotty, now that the rules of the universe have been established. I must confess, though, that I’m tempted to reread Jane Lindskold’s beautiful Child of a Rainless Year (see my review below) instead of continuing with Breaking the Wall.