Friday, June 22, 2012

REVIEW: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

Synopsis (from Amazon): 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 van 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 new found 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.

My Thoughts:  The Orphanmaster attracted me because it promised a feisty female heroine, the setting of New Amsterdam (back when New York wasn't even New York yet) and an intriguing mystery surrounding the disappearance of orphans from the colony.  While I got the first two, unfortunately I didn't get the third.  Blandine van Couvering is a beautiful young woman who, unwilling to settle down into the life of a good obedient house wife, ventures into the trade business and finds her true calling.  As this is an occupation that is frowned upon for a woman (even though the Dutch are more accepting than most) Blandine struggles to be accepted in the business.  Blandine is also an orphan who grew up under the care of Aet Visser, the town Orphanmaster.  While Visser has his own demons (drinking and corruption among them) he is the only father figure she has known.   When Aet becomes suspicious over one of his orphan's he enlists the help of Edward Drummond, an Englishman newly arrived to the colony.  What begins as a half hearted inquiry into the fate of a few missing orphans soon evolves into a partnership between Blandine and Edward to find out what is really going on in regards to the missing children and that discovery is gruesome and full of danger.

First, I loved both the characters of Blandine van Couvering and the soldier turned spy Edward Drummond.  Unconventional heroines are often my favorite characters in books and this was the case here.  Blandine is tough enough to take on the boys in business but also has a soft spot for kids, as it seems she is just about the only one who cares that the orphan kids are disappearing.  Edward is in the employ of Charles II and while in the Dutch Colony under the guise of grain merchant, his real purpose is to hunt down the regicides who sent Charles I to the scaffold (this is NOT a spoiler-it is revealed in the beginning of the book).

Second, you can tell the novel is well researched from the level of detail it contains about life in New Amsterdam.  The social hierarchy, the layout of the town, the principle occupations, are all included and were quite interesting to read.

Unfortunately, I had several problems that kept me from enjoying this book.  The story jumps around from character to character with absolutely no transition whatsoever.  First we are following Blandine on some excursion and next it will be talking about Aet Visser or Kitane (Blandine's Indian friend) or Lightning (the half-Indian man everyone in town is scared of) and it seems at times there is nothing connecting these different occurrences.  Also, for the first half of the novel the pacing is really slow.  I kept wondering where the novel was going and when the story would pick up with a little more action.  I think at half way through the novel the reader should have at least some indication.  This combined with the flipping between characters made for awkward and slow reading. There were a few side stories going on that slowed down the reading even further.  One involved the aforementioned concern of Aet Visser for one of his orphans that brought Edward Drummond into the mix in the first place.  It seems the Orphanmaster is convinced that William Turner, the orphan he placed with the Godbolt family is not the same little boy he originally placed with them even though the Godbolt's say he is.  There is also a dirty secret haunting Aet Visser, and Edward's involvement tracking regicides.

There are several instances in this book involving violence against children that I think readers may find disturbing.  Concerning the actual plot of figuring out who is snatching the orphan children and why-the description says suspects abound but the author reveals the culprit in the first half of the book so there is absolutely no suspense built up in figuring out who was responsible for these vile deeds.  The reader already knows!  It is the townspeople who have the long list of suspects.  I think the novel would have read much better had the reader been kept in the dark as to who the killer was.  When the action finally did pick up in the last 50 pages of the book and the reason why the killer did all these things was revealed there wasn't much excitement surrounding it because you already knew the person's identity.  It seems like the shock value of the grisly killings was supposed to take the place of the tension building aspect you normally get in a novel surrounding a mystery/thriller.  The author does add in an interesting element by having the townspeople believe that the killings are the result of Witika madness (i.e. the killer is some Indian-demon who is kidnapping and eating the orphan children).  Even with this thrown in the book didn't work for me.

Amidst all the violence and strange happenings, there was the romance between Blandine and Edward which I did enjoy.  Overall though I found this story to be one of the most bizarre I have read in awhile.  I did like Zimmerman's writing style but the disjointed narrative and really strange plot made The Orphanmaster a book that was really hard for me to get through.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


  1. Yours is the second not so positive review of this novel I've read this week. I think I'll be skipping it.

    Thanks for the honest review.

  2. Interesting review - I'm still not sure how I feel about this one. I'm compelled to want to read it, but with time(and space) being an issue lately I might wait on it or check it out on audiobook so I don't feel like time was wasted if I don't enjoy it. Thanks for the honesty!