Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

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Title: The Orphanmaster
Author: Jean Zimmerman
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication Date: 19 June 2012
Hardcover: 432 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
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.
Overall Rating: 3/5

The best thing about The Orphanmaster is its historical detail. Zimmerman does an excellent job of setting the scene and integrating issues and concerns the colonists had during that time. The legend of the witika was delightfully horrific, and I enjoyed reading about it. This story has lots of drama to keep the reader entertained. Though the first half is a bit slow, the second half really picks up and it is simply a race to the end. I will say that this is not for everyone, as it is rather graphic. Some of the violence and gruesome details were unnecessary, I think, and only used for shock value, which I dislike, but most of it fits in with the mystery of the orphan disappearances in the colony.

In terms of characters, Blandine was my absolute favorite. She is so strong character and really stands on her own. Though there are men in her life who help her, she doesn't lean on them and she's perfectly capable of taking care of herself. I really appreciated that and was rooting for her to overcome the patriarchal and suspicious society she lives in.

For all of its detail, I do think that the history overshadows the story. I think some of the setting could have been cut to make room for more plot and character development that would have added a richness to both. As it was, I didn't feel connected to any of them except for Blandine. Even then, I only really connected with her because she's a strong female character dealing with the ideals and prejudices of people living in the seventeenth century. And for a mystery, there wasn't much suspense. It's just sort of life-as-usual with the kidnappings in the background, when they should have been the focus of the story. Also, once enough information is given about the people in the town, it is obvious who the killer is. The characters take a lot longer to figure it out, which was frustrating for me.

I enjoyed the story overall, however. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy how effortlessly Zimmerman transports the reader to another time and place, and fans of mystery will enjoy the legend of the witika and the completely psychotic murderer.

*I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.*