fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jane Lindskold Breaking the Wall 1. Thirteen OrphansThirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold

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.

Breaking the Wall — (2008-2010) Publisher: As evocative and moving as Charles de Lint‘s Newford books, with the youthful protagonists and exciting action of Mercedes Lackey’s fantasies, Thirteen Orphans makes our world today as excitingly strange and unfamiliar as any fantasy realm … and grants readers a glimpse of a fantasy world founded by ancient Chinese lore and magic. As far as college freshman Brenda Morris knows, there is only one Earth and magic exists only in fairy tales. Brenda is wrong. A father-daughter weekend turns into a nightmare when Brenda’s father is magically attacked before her eyes. Brenda soon learns that her ancestors once lived in world of smoke and shadows, of magic and secrets. When that world’s Emperor was overthrown, the Thirteen Orphans fled to our earth and hid their magic system in the game of mah-jong. Each Orphan represents an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Brenda’s father is the Rat. And her polished, former child-star aunt, Pearl — that eminent lady is the Tiger. Only a handful of Orphans remain to stand against their enemies. The Tiger, the Rooster, the Dog, the Rabbit… and Brenda Morris. Not quite the Rat, but not quite human either.

Thirteen Orphans, Nine GatesJane Lindskold fantasy book reviews Nine Gates 2009 3. Five Odd Honors Jane Lindskold fantasy book reviews Nine Gates 2009 3. Five Odd Honors


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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