Pub Date: February 2013
Level: Young Adult/Grades 8 and up
Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.
I received Miriam Forster’s City of a Thousand Dolls as an ARC several months ago from Miriam’s editor, Sarah, and I’m deeply ashamed about the fact that my review is only going up now. However, last winter, I was in the middle of committee turbo-reading (consuming 4-5 books/week in a one month span) in preparation for ALA Midwinter. We also have a fun teen reader’s advisory program planned for next week (“Burritos and Books”) and I’ve been turbo-reading for that, too. Hence, not enough time to write the thoughtful, cogent post this book truly deserves.
City of a Thousand Dolls is an Asian-inspired fantasy/mystery featuring light magical elements, intrigue, romance, and some commentary on women’s expected roles in society. I was initially interested in reading this book because much of it is East Indian-inspired, with nods to Chinese and Japanese cultures. The City of a Thousand Dolls is a haven for unwanted and/or orphaned girls who are sent there to become apprentices in a variety of arts and vocations: healing, combat, music, seduction, even assassination. These skills are used to draw potential husbands/mates during a ceremony called “The Redeeming.” In the City, girls serve in various houses representing said arts and vocations. Houses have lofty, vaguely Oriental-ized names such as “House of Jade,” “House of Beauty,” and “House of Flowers.” Sixteen-year old Nisha Arvi, the main character, was abandoned as a young girl at the gates of the City. She now serves as an assistant to Matron, who oversees the operations of the city.
Nisha somewhat exists on the margins – she isn’t part of any house, and doesn’t belong to a particular caste. She’s also engaged in a clandestine romance with Devan, a handsome courier from the nobility. The romance is fairly one-sided and more physical than emotional–given the class structures governing the City, it’s clear that Devan and Nisha don’t really have a future (he’s a noble, she’s casteless). The fantasy element of this novel is related to Nisha’s ability to communicate telepathically with cats. Other than that, much of the novel is steeped in mystery.
The basic storyline (it’s a little hard to pin down because there are so many things going on in the book, and the pacing is slow) is that several girls in the City have been murdered and it’s up to Nisha to investigate the criminal motives behind the deaths. Nisha has an advantage because she seamlessly moves between the houses, acting as a spy for Matron. In the course of her investigation, Nisha discovers some truths about her own heritage, and ultimately resists the jarring, unacceptable traditions perpetuated by the City.
Forster does a great job of creating atmosphere – I very much felt that the descriptions were lush and evocative of–to me, at least–the Mughal Empire. I also commend her for infusing the YA fantasy/mystery market with some diversity (based in part on real-life cultures). That said, I wanted to highlight some elements of the book meriting deeper discussion–given the theme of my blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them:
1. Correlation of Caste/Class Systems to Skin Color
The connection between caste/class and skin color is pretty clear in the book. Tanaya, Nisha’s friend, is a member of the House of Flowers (Flower caste) or the aristocratic class and is described as having light hair that “shone like polished beech wood, and…smooth hands [that] danced like butterflies.” Nisha, in contrast, is described as “common” with darker skin and rough hands. Nisha’s secret romance with Devan underscores the rigid class structures. “Devan tar’Vey was a nobleman’s son and a member of the high-ranking Flower caste. Nisha was…well, Nisha wasn’t sure what she was, besides an errand girl. She was certainly no noble.”
Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable about the caste/skin color correlation especially because it’s part of a fraught, complicated history in South Asia. Given that Forster has written a fantasy novel, why the need to stick with such a troubling characterization that serves no purpose in this novel?
2. Could’ve done with a little more feminist agency and less frilly romance.
I admired Nisha’s tenacity in her investigation of the murders, but ultimately, I felt her character could’ve been invested with more feminist agency. Now, to a lot of people that may not matter, but I felt it was very relevant here. Nisha, in many instances, relies on her intelligence and powers of deduction to seek out information – that’s incredibly empowering to read. And, Forster had a lot of great material to work with (caste system prejudice, sexist social structures, disempowerment/empowerment of women, etc.) but stopped short of taking the story to a satisfying level (for me).
I also love a good romance as much as anyone, but I never felt there was any believable chemistry between Nisha and Devan (maybe that was the author’s intention?). But, then again, I also felt the same way about Nisha’s other romantic connection (don’t want to say with whom). City of a Thousand Dolls is truly Nisha’s story, and I think Forster might’ve extended the mileage of her story if she’d either done away entirely with romance, or maybe made it a more central element in the book. Perhaps most disappointing to me was the whole motivation behind the murders. I won’t reveal spoilers but I will say that the conclusion strengthens my feelings on the lack of feminist agency.
3. Why is Nisha a toothpick on the bookcover?
This is nitpicky and has NOTHING to do with the writer AT ALL. But the cover appeal for this book is questionable – the main character is depicted as a barely visible toothpick. I don’t quite understand it. Does it have to do with the perceived notion that books featuring people of color on the covers don’t sell?
Since City of a Thousand Dolls is the first in a series, I’m interested in seeing where Forster goes next, and will definitely pick up the next book. Fans of this novel may also enjoy Cindy Pon’s Kingdom of Xia Duology, Malinda Lo’s Huntress, and Dori Jones Yang’s Daughter of Xanadu.
As a bonus recommendation, I’d like to suggest Indu Sundaresan’s Twentieth Wife, which is a fictionalized version of Empress Nur Jahan’s life at the Mughal Court.