Nine Gates is the second book in Jane Lindskold's series Breaking the Wall. Like the first volume, Thirteen Orphans, the title Nine Gates comes from the name of a limit hand in the game of mahjong. Why should this be? Well, Lindskold has used mahjong as the basis of a system of magic in Breaking the Wall, which is exactly why I am reading the series. I love mahjong, and although I play a different variation than is featured in these books, I am still very excited about its use. While I wasn't blown away by Thirteen Orphans, I enjoyed it well enough that I wanted to read Nine Gates as well. On top of that, I had the opportunity and fortune to meet Lindskold briefly while at a conference and she is a lovely person.
Although the representatives of the Thirteen Orphans have signed a treaty with those from the Lands Born of Smoke and Sacrifice who came to steal back their power, neither party entirely trusts the other. But when an attack from the Lands targets them all they are forced to put their differences aside. Working together to prevent an invasion of this world they realize that their best option is to return to the Lands themselves--a difficult propositions for a group of exiles. They soon discover that the task twill be even more difficult than they expected. Interference is coming from other magic users and the realms they must travel through are falling to an unknown but very powerful and hostile force.
If there is one thing that Nine Gates suffers from it is telling and not showing, both literally and as a figure of speech. So much of the book consists of the characters sitting around and talking about what is happening, what needs to happen, and what has already happened. Lindskold is obviously aware of this since at least two characters independently comment on it. But when they finally actually get around to doing something, Lindskold can write some great and creative action sequences--unfortunately these seem to be few and far between. Granted, some of the conversations are really interesting. Lindskold's use of Chinese legends and mythology is fascinating. She has obviously done her research but occasionally it feels as though the story turns into a lecture on metaphysical concepts without really advancing the plot much. And while some things end up thoroughly explained, others are barely mentioned in passing.
Breaking the Wall doesn't have a single main character and instead relies on an ensemble cast and their interactions. Unfortunately, as much as I liked the diverse set of characters, I never felt particularly invested in their circumstances and instead was only watching their story unfold with a sense of detachment. Nine Gates does well in easing readers back into the series and players. In fact, it could probably be read apart from Thirteen Orphans and still make sense except for a few minor references. However, it does feel like a middle book--some questions are answered but even more are asked, set up, and left unresolved. Some things only vaguely alluded to in Thirteen Orphans, such as complications from indigenous magical traditions, are more thoroughly explored and developed in Nine Gates. So far there is only one more book in the series, Five Odd Honors (which I'll definitely be reading), but Lindskold has said she would like to write at least one other.