Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book Review: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

Product Details
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (June 19, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0670023647
ISBN-13: 978-0670023646

The Muse Reviews Rating: 2 Laurels

Publisher's Description:

From a debut novelist, a gripping historical thriller and rousing love story set in seventeenth-century Manhattan

It’s 1663 in the tiny, hardscrabble Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now present-day southern Manhattan. Orphan children are going missing, and among those looking into the mysterious state of affairs are a quick-witted twenty-two-year-old trader, Blandine von Couvering, herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy named Edward Drummond.

Suspects abound, including the governor’s wealthy nephew, a green-eyed aristocrat with decadent tastes; an Algonquin trapper who may be possessed by a demon that turns people into cannibals; and the colony’s own corrupt and conflicted orphanmaster. Both the search for the killer and Edward and Blandine’s newfound romance are endangered, however, when Blandine is accused of being a witch and Edward is sentenced to hang for espionage. Meanwhile, war looms as the English king plans to wrest control of the colony.

Jean Zimmerman brings New Amsterdam and its surrounding wilderness alive for modern-day readers with exacting period detail. Lively, fast paced, and full of colorful characters, The Orphanmaster is a dramatic page-turner that will appeal to fans of Hilary Mantel and Geraldine Brooks.

Historian Jean Zimmerman’s debut novel, The Orphanmaster, opens with two murders which take place on the same October day in 1663, thousands of miles apart. The first: one of the regicides responsible for the execution of Charles I of England who escaped to Switzerland after Charles II regained the throne. The second: an eight-year-old African-American orphan, Piddy Gullee, who lives on Manhattan Island in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. The two murders appear unconnected and this is where the myriad problems of this novel begin.

In the first few chapters, the audience is introduced to The Orphanmaster’s principle cast: 22-year-old Blandine van Couvering, a “she-merchant” who hopes to make a name for herself by trading with the local Native Americans for valuable beaver pelts; her servant, a seven-foot-tall freed slave named Antony; Edward Drummund, a former English soldier turned spy whose job it is to locate the remaining regicides so they can be executed; Martyn Hendrickson, the debauched youngest son of New Amsterdam’s wealthiest family; and Aet (prounounced “eat”) Visser, the orphanmaster who, in addition to taking charge of the colony’s orphans and finding them foster homes, also imports orphaned children from Europe to work as indentured servants in the wealthy households of New Amsterdam.

Slowly – and I do mean slowly, because the pacing of The Orphanmaster is closer to stereo instructions than a mystery novel – Ms. Zimmerman builds links between the disparate characters. Piddy Gullee and several other murdered orphans are connected to Aet Visser who is associated with Blandine, one of his former charges. Blandine is tied to the African community through Antony and through her friendships with two women, Mally and Lace, with whom she escaped after being captured by raiding natives. Since the local sheriff can’t be bothered to investigate a few missing orphans, especially Africans, Mally and Lace call upon Blandine for help. Their connection to Edward Drummand is formed through a budding romance between him and Blandine.

Over the course of 400+ pages, Ms. Zimmerman drags out the “mystery” of the murdered orphans. There are several suspects, including Blandine who is accused of witchcraft, Aet Visser, whose moral compass doesn’t always point north, and the witika – more commonly known as a wendigo – a cannibalistic Native American demon that infects its victims with a pathological desire to consume human flesh. The biggest problem is that the reader knows the identity of the killer halfway through the book. The rest is filler. The Orphanmaster could have been 200 pages shorter without losing anything. Instead, Ms. Zimmerman overloads the reader with inconsequential and occasionally annoying historical details while neglecting frivolous matters such as pacing or character development.

Does the audience really need to know that “groot kamer” is the Dutch phrase for “great room”? Ms. Zimmmerman seems to think we do because she hammers her audience with it at every opportunity. And if you were hoping for a multifaceted villain with complex motivations, you’ll be disappointed. Ms. Zimmerman interrupts a scene that should have ramped up the tension for her novel’s climax to treat the reader to a page-and-a-half of info dump to cover her killer’s backstory.

Overall, The Orphanmaster reads more like a dry history book than the “gripping historical thriller” it claims to be. Unless you’re a history buff who enjoys novels laden with trivia, you may want to skip this book. At best, check The Orphanmaster out from the library and save your money for Starbucks. You’ll need the caffeine.

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