The Bhinian Empire’s two-child policy and preference for boys resulted in a huge number of baby girls being abandoned, left for the wolves. The City of a Thousand Dolls was set up to accommodate the foundlings. The girls are split into major houses. They are trained to be nobles, healers, wives, mistresses–and when they are sixteen years of age, people of the Bhinian Empire speak for them at the redeeming. Everyone has a place. Everyone, that is, except Nisha. Belonging to no house, Nisha is threatened with slavery unless she can find out who is behind the mysterious murders plaguing the city. Aided by a clan of cats who Nisha can speak to, Nisha risks everything to solve the crime… even her life.
This book had a lot of potential, but I didn’t feel as though it delivered in full. What it suffered from was too big of a story in too few pages.
City of a Thousand Dolls offers an intricate, unique world that takes a step away from your typical medieval, sword-and-sorcery setting most fantasies take on. There was a strict caste system, “outsiders” living in the forest, the City itself with its divided houses and intriguing social structure. All in all, a fantastic, new, refreshing setting, clearly well-thought-out, but not so clearly executed. Much of the world remained undeveloped. Not enough time was spent looking at all of the details of the City; I had no sense of what the area looked like, or how the houses were arranged, or an in-depth view of the politics involved. Nisha had been living there for ten years and apparently knew it like the back of her hand, but by the end of the book I was still itching to know more–the bad kind of itch that comes from not knowing nearly enough to fully enjoy the story.
Similarly, there were several other places about which we know even less. The Kildi. The Sune. We’re told very little about either of them. Nisha spends all of three pages or so with the Kildi, discovers something quite important about them, and then she’s gone again. The House of Shadows could have been cut entirely, the Mistress of Shadows exchanged for some other character at the end, and I would not have missed anything, so little time was spent with them. Basically: all of this information was more than the book could hold. While everything was interesting enough, each element was not given enough room to develop properly, which made everything lack the details that could have made this book brilliant.
The same is true of the characters. There are an awful lot of them, and none had the chance to shine the way they could have done. Nisha was perhaps the least interesting. By the end of the book, I knew that she liked cats, liked Devan, felt as though she didn’t belong anywhere, and that was about it. I didn’t feel like I knew her at all; she was flat and boring, up until the end. I found some of the other characters slightly more interesting: Tanaya, Sashi, Zann. But once again, they weren’t given the opportunity to shine like I felt they could have, had they been given the time and space they deserved.
The main plot was fast-paced and exciting, but once again, it got bogged down by a few side plots that frustrated me. The side plots didn’t feel seamlessly interwoven; rather, it went something like “Oh, there’s a murder. Here, we’ll figure out what Nisha’s back story is while we forget about the murder. Now there’s another murder.” It got pretty choppy, and I almost gave up in the middle of the book.
That said, I did enjoy the ending immensely. I thought it wrapped up loose ends, and while I’d solved the murder quite early on, a few of my other predictions did not come true–rather, the revelations about a few of the characters were much more interesting than I had hoped. Those last thirty or so pages, plus the overall interesting premise, are enough to make me want to read the sequel. While the book wasn’t perfect, it was unique, and that’s something you don’t come across every day.