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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"The Orphanmaster" by Jean Zimmerman (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Jean Zimmerman at Wikipedia

INTRODUCTION:  With the intriguing blurb below, I surely wanted to try Jean Zimmerman's fiction debut The Orphanmaster.

"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."

Note that the title refers to a Dutch official - in the novel's case one Aet Visser - so it's spelled in the one word fashion.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Taking place in 1663/4 in New Amsterdam which soon will become New York of course, The Orphanmaster has a lot of promise and it starts very well in a few aspects. The two main characters are quite intriguing:

33 year old English cavalier, spy and diplomat Edward Drummond on a mission to the New World to track a few of the remaining regicides whom Charles II and his chief minister has been mercilessly pursuing since his recent restoration.

"Edward Acton Drummond. A cavalier in England, a chevalier in France, a ritter in Germany, a freebooter on the high seas, persona non grata in Spain and Rome. Of the royalist faction labeled the Swordsmen, member of the secret society called the Sealed Knot. With Prince Rupert on his naval adventures privateering in Guinea and the West Indies. Lately operating in Switzerland and the Low Countries. Now, America. His merchant mask in place, ill- fi tting and awkward..."

22 year old Dutch merchant Blandine van Couvering, from a trading family but orphaned at 15. With the help of the Orphanmaster of the title, Blandine managed to get the reins of her family business and she is now an up-and-coming personality of the colony despite her gender and youth.

 "Everywhere were stacked colanders and kettles, pins and vinegar, blankets and Bibles and toys. The warehouse, like the colony itself, skewed heavily male, a realm of pipe- sucking traders, profane sail captains and percentage-minded excise officials. But among the Dutch, profit was a promiscuous god, welcoming all supplicants, and in the counting rooms that fall day worked a scattering of she- merchants. One among them, a woman of twenty- two years, directed a young female assistant in the procedures of trade."

 However, New Amsterdam and its diverse population establishes itself as the main point of attraction and this description below cannot but evoke a sense of wonder considering today's realities:

"Four streets ran north- south, up the island to the wall: Pearl, Smit, Prince and the Broad Way. Eight roads crossed the settlement east to west, including the Strand, on the island’s southern tip, and Langs de Wal, Wall Street, the path that ran below the northern palisade.


New Amsterdam’s population commingled the dominant half who were Dutch with German, English, Swedish, Polish, French, Jewish and African elements in a fluid, uneasy mix. River Indians walked freely down the settlement’s streets, on shopping sprees for sweet pastries or bolts of cloth.
Beyond the wall lived small communities of Africans, strategically located to absorb attacks from marauding native Americans. The African settlements thus acted as shields for the benefit of the Dutch colonists in the town."

The book flows well to start and the life of the colony, the geopolitical situation and of course the story of Blandine and Edward seem to offer a great reading experience. Sadly The Orphanmaster soon loses its focus and it never really decides what it wants to be - a thriller with missing orphans, gruesome killers and graphic acts of violence or A level historical fiction depicting a crucial moment in the history of America, so the pace becomes very uneven and the action scatters.

There are a lot of interesting passages and the historical part as well as the relationship between the main characters - Edward, Blandine, Aet Visser, and a few others remains fascinating, while the atmosphere stays authentic, but the thriller/horror part is strictly cheap B-grade stuff nearing junk F on occasion and the prose also reflects this so one gets the feeling of reading two books - wonderful historical fiction and then inserted and disrupting the flow, horror and supernatural stuff that is generally more laughable than scary.

 Overall The Orphanmaster is worth a read for the good parts, but the novel could have been so much more with a different balance. While in general I tend to bemoan authors who build a supernatural feeling and then stick to realistic explanations and run away from sff, here the reverse holds and The Orphanmaster should have stuck to pure historical fiction stuff and eschewed all the spirits and such...


Anonymous said...

Interesting assessment. I haven't read the book, but the orphan angle does sound intriguing (I'm one who never tires of orphans!). Guess I'll have to see if the whole magic vs. historical is a turnoff.

deea005 said...

You read Rapture by Lauren Kate ?

Liviu said...

@Ilana - maybe the balance will work better for you

@deea005 - no, seems to be YA and I have a hard time taking seriously such


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