When Brenda Morris's father was attacked one night, she learned the truth about who he was, and what she was. Brenda was the descendant of a group of Magicians who came from an alternate world known as "The Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice" that was created when the Chinese Emperor Shang-ti burned all the books on myth and magic held by the Chinese Empire, and put to death the scholars who studied such things. The death of the scholars and the destruction of the books made a magic of their own and created a new land.
In that land rose an emperor as well, and a cadre of 12 advisors, each advisor of a family linked to one of the animals of the zodiac. Then, 100 years ago, the Emperor was killed, and his advisors exiled. The advisors left the Land, taking their magic, and their associations to the Zodiac Animals with them. But apparently, those of their families left behind craved the magic of the Twelve families, and sent members of those same families to find the Orphans of the Zodiac and steal their magic. They succeeded in stealing the magic from a few of the Orphans, but the Orphans, led by the Tiger, Pearl Bright, fought back and won, taking the arm of the invading Dragon, Righteous Drum, and capturing the Tiger, Flying Claw. Righteous Drum's daughter, Honey Dream, is of the lineage of the snake.
After the battle, Righteous Drum and his daughter, and Flying Claw signed a treaty with the rest of the Thirteen Orphans, basically saying that none of the others would cause harm or death to the other, but Honey Dream is suspicious of Brenda Morris, because she managed to keep her magical abilities after the Rat was stolen from her father. While Honey Dream is pledged to cause no harm to Brenda, neither would she cavil or protest if someone or something else hurt her.
Brenda, for her own part, doesn't particularly like Honey Dream, because both of them are interested in the same man- Flying Claw, who Brenda came to know as "Foster". Both women are interested in him romantically, but neither really likes the other, and as for Flying Claw, he doesn't seem to favor either woman in any way.
But now that the Orphans who fought the invaders have recovered the animals of those who were robbed of them, they decide to return to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice. But to do so, they will need representatives of each of the Orphans- and some of them have fallen away from their heritage. The Horse, the Ox, the Monkey, and the Snake no longer have contact with the rest of the Orphans, but Des, the Rooster, has an idea- the mahjongg sets that were constructed for each member of the Orphans contains the bones of the founders of each line- the First Horse, first Snake, and so on. If the Orphans can contact the spirits of their ancestors and convince them to return with the rest of the orphans, then the attackers from the lands could rescind their exile and everyone could return home to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice.
But to do this, they must reveal why so many of the Orphans have drifted away from their roots and heritage, and it comes down to many of the First Orphans being horrible parents- or grandparents. This has also come home to roost for Pearl Bright as well. She has an unreasoning dislike of Flying Claw because of his great resemblance to her father, and her feelings over how her father treated her. He felt that a female Tiger was a disgrace, and hoped that Pearl's half-brothers would inherit the mantle. That they didn't was a constant source of anger to him, and he took his anger out on her by refusing to praise her for anything. So, now she has transferred her feelings of anger and disappointment to Flying Claw.
But the Orphans aren't the only ones who are interested in the Mahjongg sets. A Western magician named Tracy Frye, whose magic involves borrowing bits of other traditions, wants the magic of the orphans for her own, and she isn't about to take "no" for an answer. But when she buys two of the Mah-jongg sets that the Orphans are trying to acquire, and tries to blackmail the Orphans into allowing her access to their magic along with two other Western-type magicians, one of whom also has connections to Eastern magic. So while the Orphans are trying to purchase the Mah-jongg sets of the branches of the Orphans who no longer know their heritage, they are only able to acquire two sets- the other two are bought by Tracey Frye, and as her price for turning them over to the Orphans is to learn their magic.
However, thanks to the quick thinking of Des Lee, he and Righteous Drum steal the other two Mahjongg sets from Tracey and her fellow co-conspirators using the spirits of Wind Dragons, which can go through walls and into the spirit lands. Tracey may not have the tiles, but she knows who took them, even if she doesn't know how. But can her associates have her leash her rage?
And after, the Orphans decide to approach First Ox, Nine Ducks, whose granddaughter was badly treated by the other Orphans, causing her to fall away from her heritage. But can they convince Nine Ducks to stand with them in returning to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice? And what will be the cost of allowing the Orphans to use the spirits of the Dead orphans to return home? Who among the dead will agree to join the orphans in their quest, and what will Tracey Frye do to the Orphans who have taken back their Mahjongg sets? And will they be able to survive opening the first gate and returning to the overworld? What is draining the guardians of the four directional lands, and can the Orphans and their allies save the beast guardians before they are drawn into a void of nothingness?
This series seems a bit afflicted with the "talky, talky"- characters spend lots of time hashing out what they will do before actually doing it, but at about the halfway point, the emphasis shifts to action- not that there hasn't been action before, but it's not the main focus.
Once the novel does get going, it becomes a lot more satisfying, and we get a hint at a confrontation brewing between both Brenda and Honey Dream, and Brenda and her father. Despite being one of the Thirteen Orphans, her father, Gaheris Morris, doesn't seem very comfortable around the rest of the orphans, and doesn't seem to want to spend time with them very much- he's in and out of the story, but we don't get much of a sense of why, exactly. Why is he so uncomfortable around the other orphans? We do learn eventually, and lots of secrets about the Orphans, their past, and why so many of the families have drifted away from their heritage come out here- and it isn't good for the original Orphans.
This story and this book is much deeper than most fantasy stories. I found myself continually being impressed by how much hidden information comes out with each book. It could have been simple and straightforward, but Jane Lindskold actively resists making the story that simple and shallow- every twist and turn uncovers more secrets and more shocks for the characters, and by the end, peace might actually reign between the two sets of characters. But for how long?
I highly recommend this book and this series for its wonderfully deep and well-thought out concepts and characters. Like real human people, they are all neither completely good or out and out evil, and you will find yourself rooting for both at one time or another.