Brenda Morris is a girl with unusual parentage. Her father, Gaheris Morgan, is one of the so-called "Thirteen Orphans", descendants of a magical land that split off from China 1000 years ago when the Emperor burned books dealing with Legends and magic, and had many scholars put to death. The magic inherent in the books created a new place, "The Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice", where magic was real.
The Emperor of these lands 100 years ago was killed, and the family responsible wanted his advisors put to death or banished. So the inheritors of the twelve magical houses that were analagous to the houses of the zodiac left the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice behind, taking with them the son of the dead Emperor, naming him the Cat, and making him the thirteenth Orphan. They came back to the world their ancestors had originally sprung from, but wanted to return some day.
Now, 100 years later, people from the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice came back to the first world, attempting to steal the powers of the orphans for their own, for when they left, taking most of their magic with them, it damaged the land. But the intruders have been defeated and taken captive, and are now working with the Orphans to return to the Land of Smoke and Sacrifice, constructing Nine Gates that will allow them to traverse the lands between.
But something else has been discovered to be wrong. First of all, not all of the descendants of the Thirteen Orphans have kept up with their magical traditions. Some of them, like the Horse, the Snake, the Ox and the Monkey, have fallen away from the magic, and their descendants no longer know of their own magical ancestry. But to return home, the Orphans must convince the spirits of their ancestors, held in the bone constructing the Mah-jongg sets that are part of the ancestry of each family, might be able to be returned to life for a short time so that all thirteen magical traditions, who must each return home so that all of them can, can return.
Loyal Wind, the first Horse, has been searching the lands of the dead for the spirits of the First Monkey, first Snake, first Ram and first Ox, but Pearl's father, the former Tiger, is furious that a woman inherited the mantle of the Tiger, and he has gotten to the First Monkey first, and poisoned his thoughts with lies about what is really going on. If Loyal Wind and the other Orphans wish to have the cooperation of the Monkey, they will have to defeat the Tiger, Thundering Heaven.
Loyal Wind does his best, but he is beaten, even with the assistance of the First Ox, Nine Ducks. In return, through Thundering Heaven has his own offer for the Orphans. If Pearl Bright, the current Tiger, will agree to give up the mantle of the Tiger, he will take her place and lead the Thirteen Orphans back to the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice.
Pearl, who has lived her whole life knowing that her father despised her, is unwilling to do as he says. Instead, she meets him on the other plane in Tiger form for a battle to determine who is the best Tiger, and defeats him with her magic and her cunning. She forces him to take human form, and discovers something disturbing: a female form attached to his spirit is visible as he changes over. Still, her defeat of him allows them to contact the spirit of Bent Bamboo, the First Monkey, who agrees with their plan solely because of the challenge it offers him.
Then the former first orphans must spent to Wen-lo Wang, one of the judges of the dead, to get permission for the formerly dead to return to life and help. Albert, the Cat and the descendant of the former Emperor, travels with the five spirits to the court. Surprisingly, Wen-Lo Wang does not challenge them, and they do not have to bribe him or the functionaries of the court to have him see them immediately. Instead, he eagerly grants them permission, as if something in the Lands is wrong with them, and they find this troubling, if the ease of their getting what they want is welcome.
But now that all Thirteen Orphans are ready to return, Brenda's father forbids her to go any further. Summer is ending, and he wants her to return to college and her studies. Brenda isn't happy, but reluctantly agrees. She goes to USC while the Orphans send seven of their number into the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice to scout it out.
But the lands they return to are nothing like the lands they left behind, not even in the memory of Righteous Drum, Honey Dream or Flying Claw- all the recent attackers who have allied with the orphans. They do find someone to speak with Li of the Iron Crutch, one of the land's immortals, who spends time with them and tells them of the changes to the land. The first is a great forest of stones that hurt anyone walking among them.
Beyond that is a great rushing torrent of water that falls endlessly from the sky. Beyond that is a tremendous fire that burns everything- also without end. This Li has heard of from those who have been there and experienced it, but he does not know what lies beyond the fire.
With their questions answered, the scouting team returns home to prepare for the challenges they will face in crossing such strange lands. Meanwhile, at USC, Brenda meets a strange Irish Boy named Parnell, who is not actually human- he's of Faerie, and he's there both to protect Brenda and to try and persuade her to help his own people, who are as vulnerable to what is happening in the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice as the Orphans and the people of the Lands are. The same force or person who threatens the Lands also threatens the lands of the sidhe, and they can work with Brenda because of her mother's side of the family, who has ties to the Sidhe.
But when the scouting party returns to the Lands, they make it past the forest of stone, the curtain of water, and over the endless fire, to the Mountains of Metal, where they are captured by Thundering Heaven, now working for their ultimate foe. With Brenda's help, the other Orphans might be able to sneak in through a back door that their foe does not know about, and open a doorway in the middle of the Lands to deal with their foe. But the members of the Scouting team are being tortured, and someone in the real world is trying to kill Pearl Bright. Can they overcome more than one foe and come out victorious when their team is so scattered? And will they ever be able to return to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice and reconnect with the families they left behind?
Well, this book finally has an end to the main story that has been plaguing the Thirteen Orphans through the last books- can they get home to the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice and find out what is happening there? But to do that requires quite a bit of effort, from contacting the bodies of the First Five animals that the current Orphans lack, to getting them permission to be re-embodied. This basically turns the first half or so of the book into mostly planning, not doing.
The three main characters in this volume are Pearl Bright, the first Horse, Loyal Wind, and Brenda Morris. For those who haven't gotten into the story right away (I read this book directly after the one before- The Nine Gates, so I knew the story and was able to transition directly from that to this) it can make the beginning a little confusing, but soon the story settles down and expands into three different places- Pearl's Home, the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice, and Brenda's life in college.
But no matter how much her father wants her to go back to a normal life, Brenda keeps getting called to the magical world, and the time is coming when she must defy her father and explore both sides of her magical heritage. Her father's response, to me, was very cruel and hurtful- he never tells her that he wants her to have a normal life because he is afraid for her, but he couches it in terms of money- apparently, what he knows best and feels comfortable with as a Rat. That made me very unhappy with him.
This was an interesting and entertaining story. If you have the book that came before, you might want to re-read it, in whole or in part, before you plunge into this book, as it makes the sometimes draggy beginning sections where everyone is discussing everything easier to take. But this series is truly excellent and well worth the time to read. Highly recommended.