Author: Miriam Forester
Genre: YA, fantasy/high fantasy
Publication Date: February 5, 2013 (HarperTeen – North America)
Source: Traded-for ARC
Summary: An exotic treat set in an entirely original, fantastical world brimming with deadly mystery, forbidden romance, and heart-stopping adventure.
Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. 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. Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, 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 her own life.
☆: 4/5 stars- A great debut for Forester, and a great combination of two different genres!
Review: You know, you’d never think that high fantasy and a murder mystery would go together very well. In “City of a Thousand Dolls”, Miriam Forester very successfully combines both elements of those genres to create an awesome high fantasy jaunt with talking cats, mysterious deaths, wandering nobles and girls being trained in special houses. If you liked “Grave Mercy”, “Shadow and Bone”, “Girl of Fire and Thorns” and/or “Graceling”, I’m pretty sure you’re going to love “City of a Thousand Dolls”. I know I did.
What Forester really surprised me with was the depth and richness of her worldbuilding. Everything is very detailed, all the way down to the stitches on the asars/tunics. She uses a lot of sensory imagery and language to build her world, but she also uses her characters to do so as well. The balance between the two was startlingly good, and one didn’t lean too far against the other or needed to be propped up for support. The use of both of these technical elements made this world utterly delicious to the senses with a rich history behind it. Through the characters and the introductions to each different “Act” (using historical or academic stories or chronicles invented within that world), things felt very, very rich.
However, what disappointed me a bit was the fact that I had no idea that this was for the older MG/young YA crowd – it straddles the line there between the two demographics, so I feel like this could have been a lot longer, and a lot bolder had it been written for a mid-to-older YA crowd. On the other hand, it’s good that we’re getting high fantasy for older MG/young YA readers, and this is definitely the perfect book to introduce them to the high fantasy genre with. While there’s some ass-kicking, there wasn’t nearly enough for my liking, but considering the demographic…there you go. So in the end, I made my peace with that, and found the intellectual whodunit appeal was pretty powerful for any age group.
But in spite of that demographic straddling, Forester manages to create characters, a world, and a great plot that will suck you in. For less than 300 pages, a whole lot goes on, and it feels like it could work perfectly as a standalone or as the first in a series. Which is perhaps what Forester was aiming for, I’m not sure. I hope it’s the first in a series, because I liked it quite a bit, and I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to Nisha and the cats just yet. Not by a long shot. Nisha’s adventures were utterly absorbing, and I finished this book in about two sittings.
While I feel like some of the more minor cast characters could have been a taste more developed (Devan is my biggest example here), there is the very delicate balance of this book being both character and plot-driven, and therefore there’s not a lot of time to give everyone all of the things, all of the details that will make them 3D. It’s not something I like, necessarily, but when trying to balance a book with those two elements, it’s just something that kind of happens. However, he does get a small personal journey arc, and by the end of the book, we do get to see him grow and change, which was very gratifying. So by the end, he did feel closer to 3D. The characters that had the most growth and change were Nisha and Tanaya, and they were the most 3D and the most detailed. So eventually, it all kind of worked out.
As for the plot, it moved along really well. There was no point at which I felt my attention starting to wander. Forester knows how to draw the reader in and leave them asking for more. I really hope there’s a map that gets included in the final print edition, because I could have used that, but otherwise I liked the way we were led around the Empire through its history both alone and with/concerning the City of a Thousand Dolls. I also loved that it was pretty much one big mash-up of all Southeastern/Eastern Asian cultures (clothing, food, monarchy, etc), though it seemed to rely heaviest on Southeastern the most. Not a bad thing, just something I noticed. It’s a risk to do something like that, and I liked that Forester took that risk. She created her own world, but she used a lot of our real world elements to make it happen.
Final verdict? Despite my nitpicking about the age demographic and how it could have been enhanced, I really, really enjoyed this one, guys, and I really hope this isn’t the end of Nisha’s adventures. “City of a Thousand Dolls” is out now from HarperTeen in North America, so definitely check it out when you get the chance!