Tor, 367 pgs.
Breaking the Wall:Thirteen Orphans is the start of a new series by Jane Lindskold, author of The Firekeeper Saga and Lord Demon (co-written with Roger Zelazny) among many other novels. It’s an urban fantasy of the “magic is known to be real to a select few” variety with “people from the universe next door” as protagonists. It’s using a primarily Chinese and other Asian mythologies, though it’s also clearly indicated that other magical systems/mythoi also exist. (Culture appears to define Perception of local forces or energies, which is a useful gimmick if you can do it without making everything look totally and obnoxiously homogenous. Lindskold has managed to do this very well, by the way.)
The Thirteen Orphans of the title are the descendants of twelve imperial advisors/wizards and a prince exiled from an alternate universe called The Lands Born from Smoke and Sacrifice. (A land created from lost magical and mystical lore that had been destroyed, along with the scholars who had kept it.) The twelve were known by titles linked to the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and have powers, abilities and personas linked to those names. (The thirteenth, the only surviving child of their emperor came to be called the Cat.) After arriving in China, moving to Japan and then finally ending up in America, the Thirteen scatter and vanish into the melting pot, so to speak. (This would be why the name of the primary female protagonist is Brenda Morris.)
Brenda Morris (Our Heroine) is ignorant of her family’s lineage and finds out during a trip to California to meet Albert Yu, a friend of her father’s who is the owner of an extremely fancy chocolate store that sells high priced confections to the very rich. When they arrive at the shop, they find that Yu is not there, and the tiles of a mah jong set have been scattered all over his desk. Brenda’s father immediately calls another family friend, a retired actress, who arrives after a short time, and suddenly Brenda finds herself in the middle of an episode of the Twilight Zone. (Or rather, the pages of an urban fantasy novel.) Brenda learns her family’s history, the history of the Thirteen Orphans, and that she’s apparently going to be the next Rat.
It turns out that someone is trying to track down and dispose of the Thirteen Orphans, though in a strangely round about manner. Their memories are being edited so that they no longer remember anything related to their lineage, and the first victim is apparently Albert Yu. After conferring with the Tiger (our retired actress friend) the Rat decides to track down the Dog, who is one of the Orphans in immediate danger. They manage to warn the Dog, a–young man with the nickname of “Riprap”–but end up being attacked by a mysterious assailant who manages to steal the Rat memories (and powers) of Brenda’s father, leaving Brenda with the position, some of the powers, but no training.
Thirteen Orphans: Breaking the Wall is a combination adventure fantasy, a coming of age story, and also something of a commentary on “the immigrant experience.” (It does not however overwhelm the narrative; it is just there in the background.) Her characters are interesting and entertaining and the plot is diverting. (To the point that I was reluctant to put the book down.) Her writing is fast paced without sacrificing anything in the way of details. There is also a certain sly sense of humor apparent within the narrative, and even a few laugh-out-loud moments that I really enjoyed reading. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to see the next one in this new series.