City of a Thousand Dolls, by Miriam Forster (Harper, Feb. 2013, YA)
The City of a Thousand Dolls is a sanctuary for unwanted baby girls. It is a producer of young women schooled (depending on their talents and temperaments) in various houses as mistresses, healers, musicians, scholars, warriors, and even assassins. It is the only home Nisha can remember, though she was six when she was left outside its gate. And though Nisha was too old when she arrived to be placed in one of the city's houses, has a role to file as the matron's assistant, and she has friends, and hopes for her life after she is too old for the City. In short, the City runs smoothly along, with transgressions punished severely, escape forbidden, and everyone in their proper place.
But now the City of a Thousand Dolls is home to a murderer. Girls are being killed.
And Nisha, used to moving freely throughout the city, must find out who the killer is. Her own life is at stake. As she investigates, she finds that there are secrets both within the City and in her own past...secrets that will change her life forever.
I read it in as much of a single sitting as a person with needy loved ones can. I liked it for the setting (I have a penchant for books that stay in one place), I liked it for the difficult concept of the City-is it a place of refugee and opportunity for girls who might otherwise be victims of infanticide, or is it a prison?--and appreciated that the people within the city thought about that issue themselves. I liked the details about small things. And I appreciated the fact that this isn't yet another medieval European fantasy; instead, it is more South Asian in setting and culture. So though the world-building wasn't perfect (and I have some niggling questions about the mechanics of the whole city thing), I was happy to keep reading.
However, there's a disconnect that makes me unable to heartily recommend this one.
To wit, The City of a Thousand Dolls is marketed as Young Adult, and indeed, because of the whole premise of (some) girls being trained to be mistresses, it's not one to give a naive younger reader (though the author doesn't spell out what being a mistress is all about, and there is no sex within the book itself). But it skews young in plot and characterization, and ended up feeling more middle grade than teen. A teen might find Nisha an incompetent detective (she is no Nancy Drew, but, in justice, she never thought she was), too naive to be credible, and may well find the reveal of Nisha's specialness, her romance, and the denouement of the story, all too much to take (and in fact it was all too much like a kid's wish fulfillment for me to swallow).
And there are cats with whom Nisha has a telepathic bond. Girls having telepathic bonds with cats always makes me think of 10 or 11 year olds, perhaps because when I was that age telepathic cats would have been my own dream come true....
So, uh, I'd hand this to the 10 or 11 year old girl who already is conversant with the concept of women whose role in life is to provide men with pleasure, who wants an exciting mystery/unrealistic romance with bonus telepathic cats.
[edited to add--well, maybe ten is really too young. It's probably fairer to say 11 to 12 year old girl...]
But like I said, I did find it a page turner....