Five Odd Honors continues the story begun in Thirteen Orphans and Nine Gates, leading the Orphans and their allies back to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice from which they were exiled years before. Five of the Orphans need to be persuaded, and there is a major obstacle to that little necessity in the form of Thundering Heaven, the Tiger, who resents the fact that his daughter, Pearl Bright, is now the Tiger. The situation becomes critical after a series of magical attacks on Pearl, whose house serves as a refuge and meeting place for the Orphans. The group decides on reconnaissance as the first necessity, but the scouting party runs into Lands bizarrely changed by a ruthless emperor determined to remake the Lands according to his own somewhat rigid and limited sense of what should be. (Yes, one can read a political subtext into this, if one wishes.)
Don’t be scared off by the fact that this is a continuation. I haven’t read the first installment (an omission I am determined to rectify at the first opportunity), but Lindskold offers enough back story that the reader needn’t feel at all lost. What is more problematic is the basis in Chinese mythology and folklore. The Orphans are the thirteen animals of the Chinese zodiac, some of them are ghosts, and included are some of their heirs. Lindskold’s development of this aspect of the milieu is at the same time too much and not enough: there are passages where the story slows down to accommodate a wealth of detail, but the connections are often lacking. (I’m perfectly willing to admit that those connections may have been provided in Thirteen Orphans, but it doesn’t really feel like it.) Lindskold brings in the sidhe on this one, in a wonderful and strikingly original way that I hope will open up possibilities for a future volume.
Given the characters and their mythological personae, not to mention intergenerational issues, there are many possibilities here for some good psychological conflict, but those are not really developed. The main vehicle for that aspect of the novel is the relationship between Gaheris Morris and his daughter Brenda: Brenda is an apprentice, destined to one day become the Rat, but her father is not at all sure he’s happy with that. Perhaps it’s because Gaheris himself is not really a major character — the focus is on Brenda in large part — but that relationship never achieves any real depth. Aside from Pearl, the other main focus of the story, and Loyal Wind, the Horse, the characters are largely two-dimensional, which tends to impede any real insights. I got the sense that Linkskold was trying to turn archetypes into real people (something she achieved with remarkable success in her novels of the athanor), but perhaps she should have tried to make people into archetypes.
There’s a sense of distance here that contributes, I think, to a certain lack of engagement on the reader’s part. It may be a saving grace — there are moments that are, or would be, completely horrific — but it also undercuts much of the potential effect.
And yet, I have to say this is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read recently. Lindskold is no slouch as a storyteller, and aside from the places where she derails herself with detail (happily, few), it’s absorbing and moves along nicely. It’s only in retrospect that the flaws pop up.
(Tor Books, 2010)