by Miriam Forster
When she was six years old, Nisha was abandoned at the gates to the City of a Thousand Dolls. The City is a refuge for abandoned girls; the orphans are assigned to one of six Houses and trained to become musicians, artisans, healers, and other disciplines based on their personalities and aptitudes. But Nisha was never assigned a house – instead, she became the assistant to Matron, overseer of all the Houses, and Nisha is free to move between the houses to wherever her tasks take her. The year Nisha turns sixteen, the City hangs in balance: one of the girls raised in the House of Flowers is betrothed to the son of the Emperor, who will claim her at that year’s Redeeming, an annual celebration where men gather to claim the young women as wives, mistresses or apprentices. But only a few days before the Redeeming is scheduled, girls start dying in horrific murders. Nisha is determined to find the killer and stop her – not only so that she can protect her friends in the City, but also because it is the only way to ensure that at the Redeeming, the boy she loves will take her for his wife.
The City of a Thousand Dolls has a definite Chinese (or at least East Asian) influence that’s unusual in young adult fiction. Part of it is from the names: House of Pleasure, House of Flowers, House of Jade, etc – as well as the layout of society, which starts at the top with an Emperor and has a strong caste system. I think I’m also reminded of China because the Emperor has limited families to only two children, and a result of this policy has been that girls are often abandoned in favor of sons. Many of the characters are described as dark-haired and golden-skinned, too, although there are a few golden-haired girls scattered in the houses. (Nisha comments at one point that this coloration is rare and makes those girls more valuable.)
The premise of the City is an intriguing one. As Nisha is trying to solve the murders, she realizes that these girls are being molded and groomed, virtually from birth, to become ideal courtesans and wives for men – and she’s extremely disturbed by this. But if the City didn’t exist, these girls would have been died – and the House leaders do their best to match girls with skills and partners that will make them happy. So is it an evil institution or are they just doing the best they can in a corrupt system? I’m not sure. I mean, in many ways these girls’ lives sound ideal – I’d love to do nothing but sit around taking art and music lessons all day, or studying obscure subjects to my heart’s content! But being manipulated from such a young age to please a future buyer…well, that thought just sends shivers down my spine.
There’s a lot going on in the novel. In addition to the Houses and the murder mystery, and Nisha’s little romance with a handsome courier who she hopes will one day Redeem her, there’s an this other magical sideline. Nisha can communicate telepathically with cats; it’s a secret power that no one else has. So throughout the book, cats follow her around, helping her in tough situations and advising her. This was a little odd, but I thought it was a cute character quirk so I didn’t think much of it. Suddenly, at the end of the book her cat connection becomes Very Important and a bizarre plot twist suddenly lands her with a potential romantic lead. I can’t say it was completely out of left field, but it was weird.
Nevertheless, I liked this book a lot. Miriam Forster does a fantastic job of developing the world of the City and the politics that swirl around it both inside its walls and outside in the Emperor’s bureaucracy. Nisha’s pretty likable; although she occasionally veers into Special Snowflake territory she’s a sympathetic protagonist. The mystery is pretty well constructed, and for once – this seems to be so rare in young adult books these days – the story is self-contained, so while there could be a sequel one is not required. I appreciate that!
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus…
2011: Magical JxR Vol. 1 by Lee Sun-Young
2010: Bronte Sisters Action Figures
2009: Mr. Darcy’s Dream by Elizabeth Aston