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Jun 19, 2012

The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

50% too strange for me and the other 50% completely epic

The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman
Viking Adult, June 19, 2012
Hardcover 432 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you (I think)
Burton Book Review Rating: 3 stars

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.

This "gripping historical thriller" didn't begin to interest me until after about two hundred pages in. I was confused and disgusted for the first half of this novel as the author attempted literary prowess with the shock value feature, and I was very close to setting it aside. It was only the reviews of other bloggers that pulled me through, as those who had stuck with it had seemed to love it. And there were others who stuck with it and didn't love it either. As a whole, I would say the novel was pretty good, if you could sift through the minutia of the first half.

The beginning was the major hurdle, as it introduced a slew of characters who merely promised an intriguing story. The onslaught of initial characters wreaked havoc on my attention span, even if most were not too important in the long run, but trying to keep a tally of who was who in the world of New Amsterdam was proving to be a daunting task. And underneath them all, we had to discern between who was good and who was evil. But still, it was not what I would call a character-driven story because there were so many other intrinsic parts to this novel.

The first half of the novel plodded slowly along as I slowly began to piece together a semblance of a plot, though it was so painstakingly slow I wondered what the real plot was. Was it about Blandine the girl who bested men at the trade of trading and her romantic life, or was it about the mad psycho killer who ate orphans? (It was about both, of course). There was commentary throughout the novel, perhaps attempting philosophical debate within the story that smacked of wasted space as if to fill up pages (or was this the literary prowess?). I could not help but feel for the first hundred or so pages a sense of nothingness except for the wickedness that was portrayed, as the exact stage of the plot was still at the same stage as the very beginning (145 pages in). As I tried to ignore the grotesque images that predominated the story, I meandered through these lives of various characters where it always seemed like we were going two steps back with each step forward. The orphanmaster himself was a mixture of good and bad, and we wonder about him throughout the entirety of the story. He is indeed the glue that holds it all together, hence the title.

Some of the shock factor had to do with this being a 'thriller' and the theme of insatiable cannibalism. There was indeed a flesh-eating monster/man/something targeting orphans who were brought to the New World with promise of a new life. But this novel is not for a vegan, or for the faint of heart/queasy stomach. From mentions of human bones throughout the story -of the slaughtered orphans- we also have the underlying theme of a painted beast getting ready for his next slaughter, as well as various intermittent images thrown in (for that over the top thrill factor I suppose) such as a young boy generating income in allowing others a peek at a prize possession: a jar containing a miscarried fetus.

And then, we get to the last quarter of the novel and things are finally moving along - and actually occurring.
Finally we are immersed in the history of New Amsterdam (Manhattan) and we understand more of the concept of living there in the 1660's with the convergence of Dutch settlers, Indians, Africans and the English. I loved the historical context, and the details of the era during the novel. The author also started some chapters with several sentences of what else was going on in the world outside of New Amsterdam, from sea to shining sea. When I was finally able to appreciate the novel, I found myself barreling towards the conclusion with enthusiasm, staying up way past my bedtime to finish it. After all this, was the redeeming last quarter of the novel worth it? For those who enjoy the Stephen King factor with their historical fiction, this would be just the thing. I certainly will not be forgetting this one for a long time.