In the Bhinian Empire each family may only have two children and, once officials became alarmed at how many girls were being killed or abandoned as a result, the city of a thousand dolls was formed to take in this abandoned young girls and to train them as they grew. Nisha was one of these girls but she wasn't taken in by any particular house and instead helps the Matron keep the place running smoothly. But Nishia isn't told everything and it seems like they've been keeping some things secret from her that she deserves and needs to know before she's cast back out into the world.
As I said, when I read the blurb for the book the idea of the setting grabbed me, I expected a grand, vibrant city full of glitter and secrets, some but of course not all known to Nisha, and that's pretty far removed from what it actually was. The title of the book is the most glamorous part of it, it's really just like a series of schools sharing a campus, all small and snobbishly insular, and it just made the fact that Nisha didn't belong to any of them stand out more and in a bad way (and the fact that she was supposed to be the Matron's eyes and ears and yet had somehow never found the Super Secret School for Assassins seemed rather unbelievable on multiple levels). I'm also confused why parts of the setting (the general history for example) seem very Chinese and yet other parts (like the names) sound like they came from a completely different part of Asia and it never feels like Forster tries to unify her influences and create a complete setting, it's still too obvious where she was merely picking and choosing ideas piecemeal instead of successfully blending them together.
I will admit that one thing about the setting did make me nervous from the get go and that was the story alluding to the fact that some of the girls were being trained as courtesans and I wasn't sure the story could handle that right. Honestly I don't know what the right way would be to include that in a story but the way it was done here, "these girls aren't be raised just to be romantic/sexual partners! Except when it turns out our eventual goal half the time is to raise them to get married/put in situations with older men that we specifically have to groom them to be okay with!" wasn't it. It felt like Foster was having to write in circles to make sex work okay yet the way the girls were sometimes going into sex work to be NOT okay (I'm calling "being raised to be the secret mistress to someone" sex work although I can see people disagreeing with me) and that was just frustrating. I really feel like a lot of people have this fixation on courtesans and how "they weren't all for sex but ooooh we can't say they weren't since it erases a huge part of their history!" and it just feels like a very weird obsession with sex to me, especially since it all ended up being intentionally very creepy in the end.
One thing I did like about the book however was the magic in the world, specifically the magic with the animal clans and I wish the book had included more of it. I understand why there wasn't, that was only a small part of the story and this is yet another setting where magic is practically banned, but for me it was still the most interesting part of the book by far. I noticed that the author has another book due out soon (either a sequel to this book or merely set in the same setting, Amazon was a bit vague on this) and if that book focused more heavily on this magic then I'd be interested in reading it but otherwise, there just wasn't enough about this book to grab me and I think I'll avoid another six month wait if it's all the same.