By Miriam Forster
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Miriam Forster's debut novel is glorious. Nisha is a resident of the City of a Thousand Dolls. The city is a walled-off district for unwanted female babies, where they are raised to be skilled members of society then sold to be wives, mistresses, apprentices, and more. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than exposure - so says the Matron, Nisha's mistress.
Nisha is more unwanted than most. She came to the city not as a baby, but a child. She has no caste. The Matron took her on as an assistant, but as she comes of age her position is quite precarious. Plus, she's carrying on an affair with a noble boy, Devan. If the affair is discovered it could cost Nisha her life. But when several girls commit suicide, Nisha is suspicious of something more sinister and begins to investigate. Along the way she discovers many things about the cities dark corners and her own past.
Fittingly, since the novel is called CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS, the setting is quite elaborate. Forster goes for a pan-Asian feel. There are touches of Chinese and Indian history and culture, among others, and the vast majority of the girls are described as having South Asian features. But Forster wisely doesn't make it an analog of a single place. And certain touches, such as the city itself, are pure fantasy. I hated that characters kept going, "Well, the City of a Thousand Dolls isn't perfect, but things could be worse," and easily dismissing reform. Nisha addressing her home's problems was as cheering as her own growth.
I enjoyed the mystery aspect as well. I don't think Nisha has a real future as a detective, but she did the best she could and kept asking questions and trusting her gut that something was wrong. I liked that Nisha was in a good position to investigate because she had connections to all the Houses. CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS showcases a variety of feminine strengths. (Not even the girls of the House of Beauty are defenseless.)
Also, Nisha can talk to cats. I'll give you a moment to be jealous.
CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS tackles tough sociology issues in a lush setting with a resilient heroine and an interesting supporting cast. I was breathless through the climax and quite happy that Forster leaves a few open threads to hopefully be explored in future books. This is the best sort of vibrant, exciting adventure that fantasy is capable of.