Thirteen Orphans (Jane Lindskold, Breaking the Wall #1)

2 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
Thirteen Orphans is a contemporary urban fantasy adventure novel. The book starts off fairly well and manages to be quite imaginative, but terrible pacing problems make the book unpleasant to read. This is the first in a series, but that doesn’t really hurt or help this particular book in any way I can see. Other than the pacing and a few repetition issues, there really isn’t much to complain about. The characters are relatively interesting without any tired cliches, the plot is a little contrived but fairly original, and the setting is original and intriguing. It is very regrettable that the author didn’t have the services of a more strict editor or this book could have been excellent. Overall, I just can’t recommend something that moves so agonizingly slowly despite what other strengths this book has.

Greater Detail:
Brenda Morris is an average college student living an average everyday life until one day her father takes her on a mysterious journey to discover heretofore unknown aspects of her heritage. It turns out that she is one of the representatives of one of the 13 imperial advisors embodied by zodiac animals exiled from a magical land. Her life is further complicated when her father loses his memories of his magical heritage and she has to work find and align herself with the other descendants before unknown forces can steal all their memories.

Despite the promising premise, I can’t emphasize enough how bad the pacing in this book is. My copy of the book comes in at nearly 500 pages, but this could easily be a 150 page book with some editing. There really isn’t that much that happens in the course of the story. Most of the book is taken up with endless deliberation between the characters. Whenever anything actually does happen, all the characters meet once to fill everyone in on what happened, again to talk about how they feel about what happened, then again to actually decide how to respond to what happened, and in between all these endless, pointless meetings they individually pair off to talk about how they feel about what was said at the meetings. I’m not sure if this is a case of the characters taking on a bit too much of a life of their own for the author to really handle effectively or if the author is really in love with meetings, but either way it simply isn’t effective storytelling.

Setting the dreadful pacing aside, the setting is quite evocative and different from most of what you see in urban fantasy. The magic system, relying on mahjong tiles, is very well thought out and this gives a sense of authenticity and logic to everything magical that happens. You get a glimpse of other magical traditions besides that of the protagonist’s group and her enemies that makes the setting feel like it is a fully thought out, living, breathing, dynamic world where great things can actually happen when not moved entirely by the protagonist’s actions.

The one criticism I could levy regarding the setting is that the author very clearly thinks of the protagonist and her friends as great heroes but they aren’t really motivated by anything more than self-preservation, and are actually quite villainous if you look at them from the perspective of ordinary, non-magical people. They have access to this powerful magical tradition with next to no downsides which they selfishly conceal from everyone, even though it could do enormous good if taught to the world at large; they use their powers to manipulate and steal from ordinary people; and they have a callous disregard for the safety of unprotected normal people. All this is balanced against the fact that the only valiant thing they do is protect themselves from getting their memories stolen.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I wouldn’t really classify this as young adult or children’s fare, despite the fact that there isn’t anything too objectionable for younger audiences in it — woe betide anyone who tries to entertain a child with something this slow — but the good aspects of this book reminded me a bit of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, which begins with Artemis Fowl.

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