Author: Miriam Forster
Publication Date: 2/5/2013
Publisher: Harper Teen
Blurb: The girl with no past, and no future, may be the only one who can save their lives.
Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a little girl. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. She makes her way as Matron's errand girl, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city's handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.
Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls' deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but also her life.
My first read of 2013 and, well, my advice is - skip it. I finished it so you don't have to. It is sad mostly because City of a Thousand Dolls is written so earnestly and with such good intentions. You can tell that the author meant this novel to be about diverse characters and diverse cultures. Too bad it's just not that great of a novel. It is simply lacking in sophistication and maturity.
City of a Thousand Dolls is another Asian-inspired fantasy which I would advise fans of good, clever, inventive fantasy not to bother with and read Alison Goodman's Eon duology instead. On the other hand, if you are not picky or experienced with fantasy, or don't mind your YA very young, sure, go for it. The world-building here is interesting enough, at the very least exotic. Its roots are hard to pin-point (unlike, let's say in the case of obviously Japanese-inspired Stormdancer). There are touches of Japanese culture here, with fans and tea ceremonies, dark skin, castes and names of India, demographic politics of China. All in all these pieces create if not a unique and new imaginary world, but it least different from the "normal" Western ones.
At the center of this story is the City of a Thousand Dolls, a shelter and a place of study for unwanted girls. This city is necessary because of the Bhinian Empire's rigidly enforced two-child limit, which, as it usually does, means that its citizens are more invested in keeping sons and getting rid of girl children. The City has several schools (Houses) that teach the abandoned girls music, medicine, and seduction (basically, your common high class prostitution) and assassination skills. When the girls reach adulthood, they are practically sold to the highest bidder.
The main character of the novel, Nisha, is an assistant to the City's Matron and, as often in such novels, a special kind of girl, or so we are told. The main plot of the book is Nisha's investigation of sudden deaths of several City's girls.
Not to go into any great detail, the reasons why City of a Thousand Dolls didn't work for me are the ones that I keep writing about over and over again. The quality of writing is more of MG level, which makes the whole attempt to write romance into this story with passionate kissing and such quite a failure. The romance is juvenile and void of complexity, there is no other way to describe it. The hierarchy of the City is shaky. Sometimes it's hard to understand why certain people have the audacity to be disrespectful to their superiors and of course there is the usual "special snowflake" cliche that makes our heroine special without her doing and being anything special, but having a special position in this world nevertheless. The reasonings and motivations are unclear too sometimes. Why such angst and surprise at the news of arranged marriages or employments when the main purpose of the City is just that - to find unwanted girls places to live or work once they are of age? Plus, circling back to the issue of arranged marriages and such, isn't this too tired of a trope to base a story on, the only reason for angst and conflict? It's pretty much the most worn-out trope in speculative YA right now.
And the last thing that makes the book so... young is the talking cats. I'm sorry, but I believe that talking animals belong mainly in children's lit, unless it's Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.
Basically, I found this novel very simplistic and immature, albeit well-meaning and generally decently written. It just doesn't match the level of quality I prefer in my books. But sure, give it to your 12-year old. Wait, but how would you explain it to be appropriate to have schools that educate mistresses and prostitutes and assassins in an MG book? A lot of strange disconnect in this novel...