Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book Review: City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

I'm just going to come right out and say it... I was hooked from the title. Seriously. When I was scrolling through the list of new releases this month, "City of a Thousand Dolls" just popped right out at me. It sounds beautiful and magical and mysterious, but a little creepy at the same time. And boy, it really is the perfect title for this book. Miriam Forster's debut novel weaves a story of murder and adventure, with threads of romance (of course!), and of self-discovery.

Sixteen-year old orphan Nisha lives in the City of a Thousand Dolls, a secluded estate where unwanted girls in the Bhinian Empire are trained as musicians, healers, courtesans, and--if the rumours are true--assassins. Her closest companions are the mysterious cats that trail her shadow and Tanaya, the perfect girl trained in all the Houses, chosen to be the wife of the High Prince. Only through a forbidden flirtation with the city's handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside of the walls. Until one by one, girls around her begin to die. Nisha begins to uncover the secrets that surround the deaths, but by doing so, jeopardizes not only her own future within the City, but also her own life.

One thing that I think needs to be mentioned first is the setting and background of the story. There's some incredible world-building in "City of a Thousand Dolls". While it may not have a huge, expansive world like those you find in a lot of heroic fantasy novels, the City itself is a really ingenious idea--an estate where you send unwanted girls because of the two-child rule (kind of reminds me of China's One-Child Policy), where they're taught in Houses to become assistants, apprentices, mistresses and wives for those outside the walls. Ms. Forster also brings in elements of what I pictured to be something akin to Indian culture, with draped assars, rubied slippers and kohl-rimmed eyes. There's also the concept of the caste system, with the nobility at the top and the wind caste--the wandering nomads--at the bottom. If anything, you should read the novel for the setting alone--it's magical and so all-encompassing that it feels like you really are there.

As for the heroine herself, I found Nisha to be a generally strong protagonist who's compassionate and determined. Plus she can talk to cats, sort of. Looking back on the book though, I realize that there wasn't anything too excitingly different about her--no quirk or flaw, or strong personality to really make her stand out among the sea of kick-ass or interesting heroines in the world of YA literature. Nisha to me was a protagonist who was easy to follow throughout the book as the events unfolded, but the person herself wasn't someone I'd like to meet in real life--and that's a biggie with main characters in YA novels. It's a shame because she's actually quite a likable character, and there's nothing I found annoying about her. She just unfortunately didn't have that special something that made her an excellent, engaging heroine.

The rest of the characters were diverse and really added to the story. Tanaya and Zann were two of the more complex characters that I felt for over the course of the novel, and it's interesting to see how these people interacted with Nisha in the past and in the present. As for Devan, the young noble courier Nisha has the forbidden flirtation with, at first I was a little dubious towards his true intentions and feelings for Nisha. I'd thought he was only using her for a casual relationship before ditching her for a noble born girl and formed a bad impression of him, but I must be a little skeptical and suspicious about hidden intentions right now... I have mixed feelings towards this young noble! And last but most certainly not least, the cats! When I read in a review that there were talking cats, I kind of wrinkled my brow and went "what? Talking cats?" But then I read about Jerrit and Esmer and everything (trying not to spoil things!) and it's not too bad in the end. So long story short, give the talking cats a chance.

When I was scrolling through the reviews on Goodreads, I was a little surprised that quite a few people remarked that the novel was a little bland and unsophisticated. I was pretty darn engulfed in the story and the murders that I sped by the chapters with speed and fluidity! I do see a little bit of cliche with the whole forced marriage business going on in the novel, but it wasn't such a big thing that it hindered my appreciation of the compelling plot.

All in all, "City of a Thousand Dolls" is an exciting debut novel with a magical, exciting setting that drops you right in the middle of the Bhinian Empire. While the characters weren't as unique and engaging as they could've been, the compelling plot doesn't let you down. I'd definitely give this novel a go--you might find yourself falling under its spell!

Rating: 4.5/5

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