A vivid but uneven debut takes place in an Asian-blend fantasy world.
The Bhinian Empire has a “two-child law.” Because boys are more valued, infant girls were smothered or left for wolves until the creation of the City of a Thousand Dolls. Not a city but rather “a large private estate ringed by a high stone wall,” this refuge grooms girls in one of six Houses—Flowers, Beauty, Pleasure, Combat, Jade and Music—until a man claims them as wife or mistress or until (shown less often) a healer or tradesperson selects them as apprentice. Now 16, Nisha has been here since age 6. Her unknown parentage and unique status (working as “Matron’s shadow” rather than training in a House) render her a predictable fantasy archetype. When girls begin turning up dead, Nisha pursues the truth—accidents? murders? suicides?—hoping to circumvent the Council’s plan to sell her and ruin her chance for freedom. Although Forster supplies twists and mystery, moments of revelation are somewhat lackluster. A romance thread targets readers older than those who’ll be riveted by Nisha’s special relationship with wild cats. (Bizarrely, those two themes eventually converge.) Moreover, Bhinian culture is a troublingly arbitrary amalgam of South Asian and East Asian details—jeera puffs and mukhwas, tea ceremonies and fan dancing, names like Akash tar’Vey or Lotus Emperor.
Memorable but bumpy. (Fantasy. 11-15)