So, uh, I really devoured this sequel. You can tell, since I just reviewed the first book on, like, Wednesday.
Plot, plot, plot. The Thirteen Orphans have agreed to help the interlopers from the Land to get back home, especially because the baddies who drove Honey Dream, Flying Claw, Righteous Drum, and Waking Lizard to our world will not stop until the Orphans are destroyed. To get to the Lands, the Orphans and the Landers are going to have to build the Nine Gates, interdimensional passageways linking our world to the afterlife and beyond. While they’re doing this, the magical practitioners of Earth (the native-born magical traditions, like our pagans, shamans, santeros, Nordic magic users, etc) take a vote and decide that if the Thirteen Orphans (who, remember, are only third generation Earthlings — interesting conversation on immigration and home(less?)ness here) can’t handle their foreign-ass business, they’ll be evicted… from the planet!
Nine Gates covers a lot of ground and makes explicit some of the themes Lindskold is using this series to explore. To begin, there’s some exploration of the significance of gender. Pearl Bright and Brenda are both female-bodied yang signs, meaning that the animals with which they are most powerfully associated are the more masculine animals of the Earthly Branches.* Their fathers’ responses to this shape their feelings towards their magical involvement with the Thirteen Orphans. Pearl’s father felt that her status as a female Tiger was an abomination; Brenda’s father is vaguely proud of her, but too busy to really care. Pearl’s great struggle is to move past her anger at her father. She finds that Flying Claw, who is the male Tiger she could never be, triggers her memories, forcing her to confront the lingering effects of her father’s un-love. Brenda’s father… is just acting weird. I’M SUSPICIOUS, Y’ALL.
Anyways, this exploration of gender and fathers leads to a larger exploration of what it means to be an adult. I actually really enjoyed this — unlike several other fantasy novels, this isn’t an exploration of womanhood.* Pearl, who is older and childless, doesn’t ever really wonder if she should’ve had children, or want them. Sometimes she worries that her Tiger line will die with her, but she’s not really hung up on that. Besides Brenda’s coltish crush on Flying Claw, she’s not really into the role of Maiden or Mother. Instead, both characters reflect on what it means to become an adult, in a nicely ungendered, but still character-specific way. A nice addition to this conversation is the character Honey Dream, Brenda’s rival for Flying Claw’s affection, who grows noticeably during the course of the novel. A large focus of each of these characters’ growth is on the role of empathy and compassion in the maturing process. Lindskold suggests that part of being a grown-up is knowing that not everything has to be about you, and that paying attention to the magical, the mundane, and the human is a necessary and crucial virtue. FINALLY, while this doesn’t at all assuage my concerns about interracial friendships in this series, it’s pretty cool that Brenda may be able to draw on both the magical traditions of the Lands and of Ireland, her mother’s people. It’s nice to see that whiteness is being named in some way, especially since I think Brenda’s contact with the sidhe will prove important in the next book. The thing still bugging me, though, is that there are a few references to the original Thirteen Exiles (the parents, grand-parents, and great-grandparents of the current Orphans) having been phenotypically Chinese when they first arrived in our world. Some of them passed when they got to the US. For example, Brenda’s great-grandfather passed as Eastern European. Now, the text suggests that they did that so their enemies from the Lands wouldn’t find them. I think that’s a bogus explanation, given the racial climate in which they would’ve arrived. I’m hoping — hoping! — that the next book deals more thoroughly with the complicated racial politics this series keeps messing with, such as a serious discussion of whiteness, the politics of passing, mixed race identity, and multi-ethnic identity. Heck, even a discussion of generational shifts in identity would be great.
*This got a little weird at one point, since there’s several paragraphs where Brenda and Pearl talk about how gay they’re not. < sarcasm> Lesbians are scary, especially when, like Brenda, you are pretty, skinny, and athletic. Ooga booga. < /sarcasm>
*This magic-as-essentialized-gender trop is also nicely explored in The Spiral Hunt, where Evie Scelan has to confront a triumvirate goddess whose presence molds Evie’s body into representations of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Excellent exploration of women’s bodies and choices in the present day, since we now have the choice to delay some aspects of those life-stages.