A creature stalks the shadows of New Amsterdam. Known as the witika, it is a deranged beast that consumes the flesh of its fellow man. In Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster, the witika has been blamed for a recent string of orphan kidnappings and killings. Dutch merchant Blandine von Couvering, who is an orphan herself, has her doubts, and sets out to solve the mystery with the help of British spy Edward Drummond, her servant/companion Antony, and Kitane, a Lenape trapper.
Though it had its faults, The Orphanmaster was well-written and provided an engaging lens through which to learn about some interesting history. The central mystery was gripping, though most readers will probably figure out who/what the witika is fairly early on. (Though it took me until the final author’s note to realize that the witika is the same legendary creature as the wendigo!) In part, this is because Zimmerman employs several point-of-view characters, including some who are thought to be the culprits behind the orphan kidnappings. Being able to solve the mystery didn’t necessarily lessen the novel’s tension, especially due to a revival of the creepiness during the third-act. Seasoned readers of mysteries may not be entirely impressed by the weak red herrings, but I thought Zimmerman’s writing and setting were enough to give this thriller a fresh gloss. The B plot, about Drummond hunting down the judges who signed the death warrant for the formerly-exiled English King Charles the I, is interesting, but because Drummond isn’t actually an assassin himself, I was much more intrigued by the witika, and it’s really the mystery that drives the plot.
One of this novel’s greatest strengths is the commitment to historical detail. Zimmerman lovingly illustrates New Amsterdam for us, from its dirty cobbled alleyways to the food served at its pubs. The setting pulses with energy, with sights and smells, with the clink of wampum, with the rolling tides. It was not surprising to me at all to discover that Zimmerman is a historian who has previously published nonfiction. Her world-building was really exceptional. It’s also fascinating to be able to compare the New York City of today with its beginnings during this period of time. Similarly, I thought she did excellent work conveying the wildness of the New World, and how perilous the settlement’s position was, threatened by American Indians, the English, and the raw power of nature itself, simultaneously threatening and bewitching.
The unbroken wilderness that lined the shore appeared able to absorb any perception Drummond might have of it and survive unchanged, intact, immune.
The characters overall were inoffensive. They kept the plot moving and some, like Kitane, were part of the mystery themselves. (I would totally read a spin-off just about Kitane and his adventures!) However, Blandine sometimes fell into Mary Sue territory. I can appreciate a resourceful female merchant. I’ll tolerate orphan characters, even though I feel they’re a bit overplayed. However, when Blandine starts displaying some decidedly-modern opinions on things like smoking, marriage, and slavery, I could feel myself rolling my eyes. She could have used some flaws–and I mean actual flaws, not “being too fiery” or “having an American Indian friend”. I know that it must be difficult to balance having a likable character and a historically-accurate character, but I think Zimmerman was a little too in love with her own creation to really allow Blandine to hold the opinions of a typical Dutchwoman of the time.
In the end, I think fans of historical fiction will enjoy The Orphanmaster, especially if they like a little blood in their books. (However, please be warned that there are some descriptions of rape and cannibalism. While I didn’t find them gratuitous, other individuals may find them too upsetting.) I certainly enjoyed my stay in New Amsterdam, dark and mysterious as it was, and will be sure to check out Zimmerman’s previous works. The Orphanmaster will be released on June 19, 2012, and I received a copy for review via NetGalley.
I also wanted to share one final quote that I found absolutely great, considering I live in Providence:
Of course, the director general thought. They’d take anyone up there in that open sewer of a colony, thieves, misfits, traitors. Providence was a sink into which all the dregs of the new world ran.
Rude, director general, rude!
Bookwanderer Rating:Three and a half/four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “A beast went abroad in the colony.”