The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman (& 2 Giveaways!)

19th July 2012

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Viking in exchange for an honest review.

In 1663 New Amsterdam, life is fragile. Attacks by Native Americans are a constant threat, as is attack from the British government or the competing companies. Orphans are a commodity, bought and sold by the orphanmaster for the best price. Blandine van Couvering escaped that fate. Orphaned at 15, she took over her father’s trade business with the help of a large African who, saved from the hangman’s noose, guards Blandine. Edward Drummond is a British spy, there to seek out the colony’s weaknesses. When orphans start to go missing, Blandine and Edward seem to be the only two who care, or at least, the only rational two. Witika fever has terrified the colony – the witika is the demon of the natives who can make a man desire human flesh, and when orphans turn up dead with witika masks and symbols near the bodies, New Amsterdam panics.

The Orphanmaster is an ambitious historical novel that, though incredibly spooky and suspenseful, suffers at times from information overload. Many chapters begin with information dumps about the history and geography of the area, which is interesting but definitely slows an otherwise tense novel. The Orphanmaster isn’t a traditional mystery in that it’s fairly evident who the devilish murderer is, but the aspect of adventure is enticing, as is the 17th-century colony and its inhabitants. The narration flips between telling the stories of Blandine and Edward to the story of the killer and a Native American under the influence of the witika.

Though slow in the beginning, The Orphanmaster thoroughly unsettled me and made me want to read more about New York and its origins. (Thankfully, I’ve got just the book for that…)

Curious? Leave a comment below, and you could win the hardcover book or the audiobook thanks to the generous people at Viking Books.

Psst! Click on the title to see if you won the giveaway for Shadow of Night or The Truth of All Things.

  • Yvette

    Oooooh, not for me. I had this reserved at the library, but after reading your post, I think I’ll move on. Got plenty of other stuff to read including the new Peculiar Crimes Unit book by Christopher Fowler. Do you know that series, Picky? I think you’d like it.

    Speaking of early New York historical mysteries, have you read THE ALIENIST? There’s also one titled, I think, IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM which takes place in early NY. I think the author is Stephanie Pintoff.

    I’m currently reading THE SOLITARY HOUSE by Lynn Shephard based on Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE, but I’m thinking it would work better for me if I were more familiar with the source. But I’m continuing with it because it’s so well written.

    • Ooh sorry I turned you off this one. I haven’t read The Alienist, but it’s one I’ve meant to read. Thanks for the reminder.

      I tried Solitary House but just could not get into it. May give it another go one of these days… I’ll look for your review.

  • I don’t think I’ve really read too many books (especially fiction books) about New Amsterdam. It’s amazing that some place that started out so small turned into the largest city in the country. I guess you have to start somewhere, no?

    I’ve seen this book popping up quite a few places and it seems like one I would really like. I’d love to win the hardcover!


    • Yes! I haven’t read many books in this setting either, which is why I nabbed it when it was offered to me.

      It’s got a beautiful cover on it, too.

  • Senatorbrett

    By your description… it almost sounds like a Creighton-style book… tons of fact and information, followed by great story-telling. It sounds interesting. Thank you for informing us of this book’s existance.

    Have a great day/night/whenever you read this!

    -Senator Brett

    • Thanks for stopping by! It is sort of like that. Still it’s a compelling story, even though at times it felt weighted by it all.