Title: Daughter of the Burning City
Author: Amanda Foody
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, LGBT+
Date of Publication: 25th July, 2017
Page Count: 384 pages (hardback)
Synopsis: (from Goodreads)
A darkly irresistible new fantasy set in the infamous Gomorrah Festival, a traveling carnival of debauchery that caters to the strangest of dreams and desires.
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.
I wanted to love this more than I did. I have a lot of respect for the author’s vision and her ambition, but I feel that the execution was a little lacking. This is only her debut novel and it’s such an exciting and promising start, but there are definitely areas that needed more work.
Let’s start with the positives: this is a stunningly original premise unlike anything I’ve come across before – most fantasy novels will display at least a couple common tropes, but this was a most unique and unusual standout in my reading experience. I didn’t even read the reviews before I requested an ARC because it was so refreshingly different.
Furthermore, I am THRILLED at the range of diversity in this novel! From the synopsis, I had no idea that there would be so much to delight me; I am always on the lookout for stories that don’t promote the heteronormative default, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that our lead is bisexual, her sister is a lesbian and another character is on the ace spectrum (the word ‘demisexual’ is never used, but strongly implied). It makes me happy that we’ve moved on from ‘issues’ books where a character’s sexual orientation defines their character and their storyline to books where protagonists being queer is treated in as matter-of-fact a manner as being straight and their sexuality doesn’t hold them back or impede their arc.
“I’ve always found people’s romantic lives rather baffling. Like everyone was gushing about a song that I’ve never been able to hear…
I guess I don’t just look at someone and think…attraction. It takes, I don’t know…I have to care about the person first.”
I nearly squealed out loud when I discovered that the author was indeed including a demisexual character. At first I thought it was wishful thinking because I tend to try and read subtext into everything, but then it came true!
This lead to a wonderful conversation on boundaries and consent, and it is EVERYTHING. ❤
I also enjoyed the wildly atmospheric carnival setting with its unpredictable, dark and macabre vibes. You could feel danger around every corner, with the dual threats of conservative soldiers out to menace the residents of Gomorrah as well as the unknown person targeting Sorrina’s illusions. On this front, chapter art was included with diagrams of Sorrina’s illusions from when she first started working on their creation – I liked the childish nature of these illustrations, with the chilling addition of the murderer’s notes on how to isolate and murder them. It was certainly effective in adding an element of dread overshadowing seemingly innocent scenes as I waited with bated breath for the ax to fall and another character to be killed off.
Unfortunately the world-building beyond Gomorrah felt very flimsy – I had a hard time seeing how Gomorrah fit into the political sphere; on one hand, it was meant to be a power to be reckoned with and a major player in the game, but then it was subject to harassment and persecution from common soldiers. How is the proprietor meant to stand toe-to-toe with royalty if their citizens can be assaulted with no repercussions?
Also the carnival itself was billed as dangerous and menacing, but then fancy city folk would titter and merrily traipse around as though it were just another Sunday outing at the park. Of course it’s only human nature to be interested in things that are taboo, it would make sense for rebellious teenagers to sneak off to investigate this place, but I don’t see prissy rich socialites being allowed to attend such a carnival.
Being the proprietor’s daughter, Sorrina was next in line to lead Gomorrah and we’re privy to some of her lessons with her adopted father, Villiam – this could have been interesting, except for the exposition being clumsily inserted in massive info-dumps. And speaking of things that don’t make sense in the political scheme of things, how was Sorrina ever meant to be proprietor when she was visibly ‘Down-Mountainer’ (ie. not white) and labelled a freak as she has no eyes? Hardly anyone within Gomorrah respects her and certainly nobody outside would deal with her, given the rampant hysteria and prejudice against jynx-workers and anyone with deformities.
Further on the topic of Sorrina’s physical appearance, I really can’t grasp how it is that her abilities allow her to see – I suspended disbelief for the duration of the book because I wanted to enjoy it, but by the end, I was none the wiser how her illusion-working skills enabled her to live life just like a sighted person would and this really bothered me. Ignoring that is a pretty big ask when it’s a question of how your POV character is negotiating their world!
There is also a major revelation concerning a main character that happens near the end of the story and I’ll refrain from spoiling it for you, but while it seemed clever at the time, in hindsight it MAKES NO SENSE given Sorrina’s abilities and how we’re given to understand it works with the Strings that she manipulates.
What troubled me the most was the shallow characterization given to several important characters – Sorrina and Luca are very well-fleshed-out, as are Unu and Du, and Venera and Nicoleta, but the other illusions that form Sorrina’s family don’t fare as well. Case in point, I completely forgot Hawk even existed until she became important to the plot later on. Plus Villiam as proprietor and father figure should have been developed much more than he was; despite being a key player in the story, I had hardly any feel for who he was and what he stood for.
Lastly, I had a serious case of deja vu throughout the story – now, I’m an avid Agatha Christie fan and no matter how many people she killed off, it was always fresh and startling and gripping. In this case, after the first death, which is when the story should’ve picked up its pace, it all became quite rote and hum-drum instead. Sorrina would find another loved one dead, she would sob and cry, then run into her father’s arms or Kahina’s embrace, and repeat the story and over and over. I should have been sorrowful and sympathizing with her, but that emotional connection just wasn’t there. I felt curious to find out how it would be resolved, but the writing didn’t engage me enough to shed my own tears.
In Summary: Unique premise with diverse characters and interesting magical abilities plus a murder mystery that isn’t easy to unravel and will keep you guessing. However, your level of emotional engagement in the story may vary given the underdeveloped characters and incomplete world-building.
Personal Rating: 3 out of 5 kitties approve this book.
Disclaimer: I received a digital ARC free from Harlequin Teen via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.