Goodreads description: 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
The summary sounds exciting but the book was disappointing. The entirely original, fantastical world doesn’t seem very original. There is an extreme class system, magic that used to be, mistreated women, and talking animals.
Possible spoilers ahead
In Nisha’s world, there’s a two-child limit because resources are slim. People prefer boys because boys can be important and when they aren’t important, they can be apprentices. They have power and opportunity on their own. That isn’t exactly original either. But girls are a problem because if they can’t do anything and you can’t marry them off, they are useless. So it’s best to just drop them off at the City of a Thousand Dolls.
In this City, unwanted girls are groomed to be useful to others. In this world, the City is good because otherwise I guess they’d just drop the orphan girls off in a forest or something. Instead they are fed and given skill sets that will help them rise above their meager beginnings. Find worth in the House of Pleasure (are girls younger than 16 being taught to be sexually pleasing to men? squick), House of Beauty, House of Jade, House of Flowers, House of Combat. If you are found to be worthy you can be purchased on Redeeming Day, oh excuse me, “there’s a redeeming fee to pay, but it doesn’t mean you actually own the girl afterward.” Ohhhh, good. That’s a lot better. Then you will be married, a mistress, or employed as a healer, musician, fighter. Oh, the possibilities. But if the girl isn’t er- redeemed– the city provides her with money and sets her “free” to find a life of her own.
Nisha isn’t in any of these houses, though. She’s an errand girl and narc for the Matron (the director) of the City. She receives training but doesn’t really have an area of expertise. She knows nothing of her past or her family. She is very naive and she converses with cats in her mind. Nisha is 16 but she seems so much younger. I’m not sure if it’s the cat thing, but when she would think and talk to House of Pleasure matron, it felt uncomfortable because it didn’t feel like she was old enough. Not that any of the girls are exactly old enough, but still. She does have a secret and forbidden romance with Devan, a noble’s son slash mailman (oooh Mr. Postman). She has hopes that he will buy her on Redeeming Day, but if they’re caught before then she’ll probably die.
It’s getting close to Redeeming Day when murder strikes and chaos enters the City. Is the orphan haven safe? Who is out to get them? Some of the house mistresses are convinced it’s an accident. But of course, they are sticking their heads in the sand. Nisha, being an important assistant, must find the truth. This mystery of the dying girls should be big, but I think I was too distracted by everything else going on to care much. She eventually figures out the truth about her questionable background (that was obvious to the rest of the City) and discovers the obvious murderer. Despite everything going against her, the book ends easily and neatly.
For me, this book seemed weak in every aspect. There was a magical background, but not enough magic in the story to actually make it interesting. The background of the talking cats is interesting, but their portrayal made Nisha seems younger. The politics and misogyny were disappointing and boring. Even the big mystery was predictable. This book had a lot going for it, but needed a lot more to be great. I wouldn’t want to read it again and I won’t be checking out the rest of the series. However, if you’re a fan of fantasy and talking animals, you might actually enjoy it.