Jane Lindskold’s Nine Gates

lindskold-nine gatesEver since their exile from the Lands Born from Smoke and Sacrifice a century ago, the Thirteen Orphans and their descendants have done their best to blend into the cultures of Earth, striving to maintain their bloodlines and protect their unique magical powers from discovery and exploitation. They’ve laid low for generations, some dreaming of a day when they might return home, others losing touch with their heritage and allies. Most never actually expected to hear from the Lands again. But all that has changed. Events in the Lands have led to a need for the Orphans’ powers, and a small delegation was dispatched to retrieve those powers at any cost. In the wake of that mission’s failure, that delegation has been trapped on Earth, forced into a wary truce with those they’d so recently attacked. Now the two factions — so very much alike, and yet so different — find themselves menaced yet again. On one front, more warriors from the Lands have come through, and they’re not about to play nice. On the other front, Earth’s native magical traditions have begun to take an active interest in the goings-on, and some of them are willing to go to extreme lengths to steal the Orphans’ powers.

The course of action is obvious: Lands-born and exiles alike must work together to forge a mystic bridge which will take them back to the Lands, where they can unite against those who would threaten them. But lurking in the space between the worlds is an even greater danger, one which could spell doom for all involved if left unchecked. Can the Orphans and their erstwhile allies recreate the Nine Gates, defeat a mysterious evil, and outwit those who would steal the secret of their magic?

Picking up where Thirteen Orphans left off, and indeed opening with an action-packed sequence, Nine Gates continues the saga of the Orphans and their world. This time around, we meet more of the Thirteen Orphans, and learn how and why some of the branches have fallen away from the tree. We’re introduced to tragic downfalls, forbidden romances, bitter rivalries and fatal flaws. Balancing it out, however, are chances at redemption, heroic sacrifices, noble efforts and transcended limits. Weaving throughout the narrative are magic-infused action scenes inspired by Hong Kong martial arts films, and intriguing character moments.

Nine Gates is a wonderfully-told story, using the mythic resonance of the Chinese Zodiac along with elements of history, gamescraft and magical theory to build a world almost entirely divorced from the European traditions that make up so much of urban fantasy. It’s new and different, but not enough to create culture shock. In fact, in this book, we get to see how the magic system of the Orphans relates to what they term the “indigenous” traditions of Earth, and it’s an interesting contrast.

Unfortunately, Nine Gates isn’t perfect. The cast has become rather bulky, with upwards of two dozen players to keep track of at any given time, between the various factions. This means that Lindskold has to constantly work to maintain the balance of point-of-view narrative and screen time, without letting anyone fade away long enough to be forgotten. On the bright side, she has a talent for making many of the characters engaging, and giving them each their moments in the sun. A worse problem is that this is the second in a series, and suffers a little from that middle child syndrome. Neither a beginning nor an ending, it lacks a certain sense of completion, and leaves both audience and protagonists hanging, waiting to resolve things in future installments. And yes, I very much want to see how things turn out, the sooner the better. Two books in, and we have yet to actually make it back to the Lands, which have been in peril and upheaval the whole time.

Still, this series is easily one of Lindskold’s best efforts to date, blending urban and mythic fantasies into one great big adventure, and it’ll be great to see how it all holds together as a complete story someday. Nine Gates gets a thumbs-up from me, despite my quibbles.

(Tor, 2009)