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City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

City of a Thousand Dolls

By: Miriam Forster

Release Date: February 5, 2013

Rating: 2 Stars

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.


For me at least, City of a Thousand Dolls is a cautionary tale in style versus substance. Stylistically, this is a book that hits all the right notes – it’s rich and inviting and takes inspirations from several different Asian cultures to create a rather unique reading experience; it’s certainly not a book that lacks for world building. Yet at the same time, substantively, I really don’t feel the actual story lives up to the setting; behind the exotic fashions, the politicking, and the courtesan intrigue, everything from the murder plot to the romantic relationship to even the role of the City in the history and politics of this Empire the story is supposedly ultimately about just felt way too easy.

That said, the summary at least is a hundred percent accurate. I can certainly see the original, fantastical world as advertised, which seems to me like it’s sort of inspired particularly by Memoirs of a Geisha with the ceremony and the fashion (though I for one would never notice the difference between a flirting robe and an intimate relationship robe) and the misogynistic focus on unwanted girls who are at this estate where they’re trained to be wives so this society doesn’t collapse on itself, along with some tones of India and Southeast Asia for added effect. The only weakness I noticed is that a lot of the backstory behind the origins of the Bhinian Empire, particularly the reasons for the two child policy, the preference for boys, and why this City for abandoned girls has to exist, is told through some really bad exposition (magic gone awry!!), so there’s a disconnect between the setting and the plot – I get why the story unfolds the way it does, but I really didn’t see any connection between the murdered girls plot and the entire rather complicated backstory. The identity of the killer is some fairly standard stuff that’d be generic even for a mystery or thriller, the investigation is more bogged down by the vivid descriptions than served by it, and the end with all the reveals left me far less than impressed with the direction of this Empire once the killer’s caught.

Then, add to that the fact that I’m not the kind of reader who thinks vivid descriptions of style and customs and courtesan intrigue alone makes for a good read, and you see where I’m going. I wanted to like Nisha, but when the most polite way of describing this book is saying it’s a murder mystery with some heavy duty world building plastered on to cover up how shallow the murder mystery plot actually is, well, I guess it’s foreseeable that the main character ends up being a generic spunky Nancy Drew type with gumption yes but also just as much distinctiveness as a character – namely not much. A lot of Nisha’s ‘detecting’ comes across the same way – for example, she hears rumors of a mysterious house of assassins, decides to investigate, stumbles into the woods, and… discovers the house even though the assassins are supposed to be just a rumor! Huh? And it turns out these secret assassins aren’t even the culprits, and actually, I’m still not quite sure what their purpose is besides ill advised red herring. Not to mention, Nisha’s relationship with Devan and her friendship with Tanaya both come across in the same saccharine sweet way for most of the book, so much so the one eighty character developments both undergo makes them really unpalatable characters towards the end.

Still, my biggest problem is that, despite the richness of the setting, all of it feels incredibly underused. In addition to the murderer, there are some additional antagonists for Nisha like Devan’s power hungry relatives, but despite how much is discussed about the politics of the Empire, their connections to the murdered girls plot is almost zero and ultimately quite silly. Instead, I wanted to know more about the politics and history of the Empire, the magic, and the various peoples and everything else that’s introduced and revealed about Nisha and her family that makes her seem like quite a special snowflake, and more importantly, see how these details are tied with the murders, but nothing really came of it. Instead, there’s a lot of stuff about the Lotus Emperor that’s thrown around but doesn’t really seem to have any bearing on the actual plot, except to give certain members of Nisha’s family a license to behave like jerks. And the talking cats, I’m actually a fan of talking animals, but what’s revealed over the course of the story about their origins and how they’re handled in the end had me questioning why Forster decided to just drop that huge bombshell at the end when I really don’t see what purpose the reveal serves, besides to totally screw over Devan / give Nisha a textbook happily ever after.

I guess, yeah, City of a Thousand Dolls is definitely a great concept but I really don’t feel it knows what kind of book it wants to be. A complex fantasy? A murder mystery? An Asian inspired fantasy tackling the issues with these types of misogynistic societies? So it ends up trying to do all of the above but in reality doesn’t manage to do any of it effectively.

Go to Mitch’s review on Goodreads.

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