I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that was both fantasy and a murder mystery, so in this regard City of a Thousand Dolls was quite unique. Miriam Forster also gets bonus points for keeping me guessing about the identity of the murderer until the very end of the story. I love trying to figure out a good murder plot, so I was impressed with her slight of hand on this, especially seeing as she dropped all the necessary clues.
This isn’t a fast-paced book with lots of action, rather the author spends her time weaving together a cast of compelling characters with a colourful and richly textured setting. There is a lot of description in City of a Thousand Dolls, especially concerning clothing. Though this slowed the story down a bit for me, it contributed to the vivid Asian-influenced atmosphere of the book, which was ultimately its biggest strength.
While City of a Thousand Dolls is a mystery, at its heart it’s about the issue of independence and respect. The girls living in the city are orphans training in various cultural arts that will make them suitable wives, mistresses, or assistants. The plot works its way toward the Redeeming, a ceremony in which wealthy men (and sometimes women) can purchase them. The society in which they live operates on the caste system and while the City of a Thousand Dolls provides a means for castoff girls to survive, it also perpetuates the immoral practice of selling young women and sentencing them to lives they did not choose.
The main character, Nisha, serves as an assistant to the Matron of the City of a Thousand Dolls, and as more girls are killed, she is secretly assigned the task of investigating the deaths. While she tries to solve the mystery of who is murdering her fellow students, she also discovers some important details about her own obscure background. The question of Nisha’s fate following the Redeeming is also central to the plot. Her desire for freedom and to be treated as more than a nobody made me sympathetic to her plight. I admired her determination to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, even if it meant putting her own life at risk. I also enjoyed her bizarre telepathic relationship with the cats that roam the City of a Thousand Dolls.
In addition to the revelation of the murderer, there was another plot twist that took me COMPLETELY by surprise. In fact, I read that segment twice, because I was so dumbfounded for a moment. This particular reveal was my favourite part of the book. Just as with the murder clues, the author played fair with her hints about this as well. And that is all I’m going to say about that…
If you like reading books with strong female characters, detailed description, and are intrigued by a mash up of fantasy and murder mystery, then City of a Thousand Dolls might be just the story for you.
*Note: I would advise not reading the cast of characters listed at the start if you can help it. I happened to flip there when I was partway done the book and found it was a bit spoilery concerning a couple characters.