Review: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

June 21, 2012 Historical Fiction, Review, Thriller, Viking 2

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (June 19, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0670023647
  • Source: Publisher

It’s the seventeenth century in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (present day Manhattan).  Orphans are disappearing, only to be found later severely mutilated. The colonists, a melting pot of cultures, blame the witika, a legendary creature that roams the forest, eating human flesh.

Blandine van Couvering, a former orphan herself, believes differently.  Blandine has made quite a life for herself, now a headstrong trader at the age of twenty-two. She has enough klout in the community that she is able to get together a small group to investigate these abductions, along with the aid of the handsome English spy, Edward Drummond.  This unlikely group becomes dangerously close to the case at hand, one of their members becoming “possessed” by a demon after seeing the witikia.  Despite all the evidence indicating this supernatural being is the culprit, Blandine and Drummond work hard to prove their own case before more children are abducted.

The Orphanmaster is an incredibly well researched novel overflowing with historical details.  Zimmerman’s knowledge and experience are quite evident in the level of detail provided. As the reader learns of the orphans’ tragic abductions, he/she is also schooled in the culture of the Dutch colony and the social customs of the time.  This is a dense novel in the strongest sense of the word. It cannot be skimmed or read quickly, but instead read at a pace that allows the reader to truly absorb the level of detail given.

While the identity of the killer was apparent pretty early on, Zimmerman doesn’t stop attempting to convince you that your predictions are incorrect, not giving in until the very last pages. The journey is not in identifying the suspect, but the path the investigation takes to prove the case.

I did have a few issues with the book. First, as mentioned above the historical detail Zimmerman provides is incredibly strong and pronounced. Almost too much so, in my opinion. Oftentimes, I forgot I was reading a work of fiction, instead feeling like I was reading passages out of a textbook or a historical document. Now, I have nothing against this personally, but I feel this level of detail may put off those readers simply looking for a lighter historical fiction.

Additionally, the legend of the witika seems almost last minute, like it was added to add a different tone to the novel. It started off strong and then sort of puttered out. I felt that it should have either been fleshed out more or removed entirely for this novel was strong on its own, not requiring this touch of the supernatural.

Finally, the point of view shifted quite dramatically, making it quite difficult to keep up with the viewpoint. On several occasions I had to go back several lines to retrace the shift. Not a huge issue, again, but one that I felt important to point out.

All of this said, I did enjoy this book. Not for the suspense or the mystery, or the supernatural characters. Instead, I appreciated it more as a lesson in our nation’s early history. I do recommend this book for devout fans of historical fiction, especially those who appreciate a high level of historical detail.



2 Responses to “Review: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman”

  1. Jen
    Twitter: Crazybookblog

    I just started this book and I can already tell that I am going to need to read it slowly and carefully! I didn’t realize there was a supernatural element to it…I’m a bit put off by that, but we’ll see how it plays out for me! Glad you enjoyed it, Jenn!

  2. Howard Sherman
    Twitter: howardasherman

    Historical fiction is not my first (or second or third) choice of genre so an author of historical fiction has to pull off a very impressive balancing act to get my attention and keep me engaged in the story.

    There’s a lot to like in The Orphanmaster but I get the sense the scales are tipped too heavily in the history category.