I accidentally picked up the second book in this series, Nine Gates, and got almost half-way through before realizing I'd started in the wrong spot. It was enjoyable, and she didn't spend any time at all on background details, just a whole lot of in-cluing, but this isn't a stand-alone novel, you really need to start with book 1!
So, back to book 1 then. This is set in the US with a lovely Chinese flavour. All of the characters are of Chinese (sort of) descent, but are very American. The magic is wonderful, based on Mah-jong which I have never played but am finding myself more and more intrigued by. There are hints of other magics in the world which follow different rules, but we don't get exposed to any of that yet. In the hands of a novice, spells need to be prepared ahead of time. An expert is able to cast spells on the fly. Inborn ability is important, but won't get you very far without an awful lot of work. I absolutely love the way contemporary materials are used to make spellcrafting easier to use. Lindskold did an amazing job with the magic system here.
The main characters are descendents of thirteen exiles from the Lands born of Smoke and Sacrifice, a magical realm created by the destruction of books and scholars in ancient China. Each of the exiles had a magical association to one of the characters from the Chinese zodiac (plus the cat - descendent of the emperor's son), which gets inherited by their heir when they die. The heirs suddenly find themselves under attack by someone, presumably from the Lands, who is stealing the abilities and all of the memories associated with this association. In some cases, where this association was very central to the person's life, it causes a dramatic personality change and a degree of amnesia. In other cases the amnesia is quite mild. The few who have escaped these magical attacks get together to try and figure out what is happening and how to regain their colleagues memories.
It's a great story. There are two main POV characters, Pearl Bright - daughter of the exile Tiger, who was a child actress and now fairly elderly but still very capable, and Brenda Morris - teenage daughter of the Rat who has had his memories magically removed. They're both great characters, dealing with different aspects of the same problems. Brenda is only just learning about her peculiar heritage, so learning about the background details happens very naturally. Her acceptance of the situation, of magic, of her own ability to perform magic, are very realistic. She reacts the way I would expect an American teenager to react - with disbelief and skepticism which rapidly turns to acceptance when they find themselves under attack, but returns to a believable level of incredulity once the danger has passed. She is a very nice contrast to Pearl Bright for whom being the Tiger's heir was central to her childhood, and who has been the Tiger and the leader of their loosely connected group of exiles for many years by virtue of her being the only second generation descendent of the exiles still living.
A very quick and fun read, I can wait to pick up the next volume.