My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Sixteen-year-old Sorina has spent most of her life within the smoldering borders of the Gomorrah Festival. Yet even among the many unusual members of the traveling circus-city, Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.
But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.
Desperate to protect her family, Sorina must track down the culprit and determine how they killed a person who doesn’t actually exist. Her search for answers leads her to the self-proclaimed gossip-worker Luca, and their investigation sends them through a haze of political turmoil and forbidden romance, and into the most sinister corners of the Festival. But as the killer continues murdering Sorina’s illusions one by one, she must unravel the horrifying truth before all of her loved ones disappear.
Warning: There are major spoilers in the review below. For a spoiler-edited version, read here.
Some books have one fatal flaw, a major shortcoming that makes them irredeemable in the eyes of a particular reader. Daughter of the Burning City wasn’t like that for me: It’s simply bad in a general sense and doesn’t work as YA fiction. I do think that, considering the writing style and themes invoked, it would have been better served as a Middle-Grade novel.
For about the first three quarters, DotBC is a one-star read. Parts of it read like a rough draft, and the parts that don’t are largely vapid. In fact, vapid is a pretty good word to describe this novel as a whole. Let me try to dissect the various levels on which it falls apart:
1. The first, but nowhere near only, problem is that the plot itself is boring. Lifeless. The blurb promises a murder mystery set in a unique high fantasy world (the sheer audacity of its concept being one of the novel’s few strengths), and people do die (although not as many as you’re led to expect), but in a fashion that yields little suspense or even cheap fear. Really, the story is set in a freaky carnival right out of a horror movie. It should be able to do so much better–except it’s all handled so poorly that for the first half, I was wishing so hard for more murders to happen just to break the monotony of Sorina’s unproductive running around.
2. The world-building leaves a lot to be desired. How does this nomadic city of 10,000 people somehow remain self-sufficient while hated by most of the regions through which it travels? Where does it get the basic supplies of food and water needed to support this kind of population? What even is the point of traveling around like this? Vague allusions are made to justifications, alongside other vague references to historical events and political mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t seem the least bit realistic, but none of the explanations are anywhere close to satisfying. Part of the reason the world-building face-plants so hard is the…
3. Naming. Good grief. I get that creating entire fantasy worlds is hard. I get that inventing legitimate-sounding names for all your characters, locations, professions, types of magic, etc. etc. is hard, especially when you have to make your names different from the names found in the gazillion other fantasy novels out there. But for the love of God, please don’t use terms like “prettymen” and “prettywomen” (prostitutes) and “Up/Down-Mountain” (geographical regions) unless you want your reader to cringe so hard that she fails to notice the other holes in your novel.
4. Extremely ham-fisted treatment of “grey” morality. For the first 75% (what about the last 25%, you ask? more on that later), this novel doesn’t understand the meaning of nuance, unless nuance is an elephant running around in red, blue, and yellow paint. We’re hit in the face with our protagonist’s status as a “freak” so many times that I wanted to slap her. I get it, you’ve been bullied for not having eyes. Quit whining. I couldn’t care less. Bear in mind that this is the same girl who later on tortures at least two people in cold blood, one of whom is totally innocent. She accuses the innocent one of lying and cheating her even though it’s this obvious that he’s telling the truth, then mind rapes him and steals from him…then, when she realises her mistake, all but expects him to greet her with a hug and a smile after she gives a word of apology. This would all be fine if said protagonist were written as a sadist, but she’s not. We’re repeatedly told that she’s smart and kind and all the greatest qualities that we’re supposed to be rooting for. And the torture is brushed off without a second thought–why not take all the words Sorina spends crying for her own condition and use them to explore the moral dilemmas surrounding her intrinsically ethically-dodgy powers?
5. Finally, on to Sorina herself. It’s not a stretch to say that she’s the most obnoxious protagonist I’ve read this year. She’s entitled, self-centred and incompetent–she often goes to people to help and keeps wanting them to shut up when they then reply with relevant information that doesn’t immeeeeeeediately give her the answers she’s looking for. At the 60% mark I finally threw in the towel and conceded that yup, she’s just stupid. Not just in a teenage girl kind of way, but also in an 80-IQ kind of way. You know that one friend who’s just smart enough that they seem like a normal person at first meeting, but one day says something so dumb that you first laugh for ten seconds before you realise they weren’t joking, then start reconsidering your entire acquaintance with them? Yup, that’s Sorina! She spends the majority of the novel waffling between following her dad or following that mysterious hot guy (*rolls eyes*) who are telling her different things, and most of the time ends up believing whoever she last talked to.
So at this point you may be wondering why I’ve given DotBC a second star, despite finding essentially zero redeeming qualities in it. Let me now say that this is one of those rare novels where the ending goes a long way to redeeming the drudgery that came before it. If this is the author’s intention that we hate her characters and find everything full of plot holes because the narrator is unreliable to the point where the lines between truth and illusion completely blur, then I recant most of what I’ve written so far. If DotBC is intended as a scathing exploration of the dark side of telepathy, and the protagonist’s idiocy is a result of having her mind warped beyond recognition, then I can get behind it. In fact, several other elements in this novel that I initially hated, especially Sorina and Luca’s instalove, are justified by the rather genius ending.
I may in the end just choose to interpret the book that way. The alternative is a tad too grim.