“They say pressure can turn even a grain of sand into a pearl under the right circumstances.”
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.
TW: violence, mild body horror
After reading Ace of Shades a little while ago, I knew I wanted to check this book out, and lo and behold, Amazon tossed it my way for $2 on Kindle right around the time my final paycheck from the greenhouse came through, like it was meant to be. Most the paycheck was squirreled away for bills, but that $2 was gone in a flash.
I think I’m mostly happy with how I spent it, too, which is a relief. Daughter of the Burning City was wonderfully atmosphere, set in a carnival-centered city styled as the City of Sin and packed with all manner of circus oddities and shady dealings. It’s a moving city, one that travels through the world with its borders ever burning, supposedly enchanted long ago, and Foody does well to describe it, bringing in the sights and sounds in full. There are licorice-covered cherries, bright lights, hazy smoke, but also manure and theft and cheats and gambling, and it’s blended seamlessly into this place that could be dangerous but is also home to Sorina and her family.
Speaking of which, WOW, what a concept. Sorina is an illusion-worker, capable of creating lasting illusions with her own magic. She has no eyes but can see, and she and her family, made from her magic, run their own personal freak show to bring in money. There’s Nicoleta and her superhuman strength, Hawk and her wings, Venera and her literally boneless flexibility. Unu and Du have two heads and one shared body, Blister is a fire-belching baby, Tree is a tree (okay, so he’s the oldest creation), Crown grows nails instead of hair, and Gill is a fish man who can’t breathe out of water. They’re a family, all close to one another, all very dear to each other.
Which makes it heart wrenching when the illusions start dying.
I shed tears a couple times because their family bond was so strong, and then there was LOSS. You could tell how much these illusions meant to Sorina, especially with the knowledge that they could die despite being born of her imagination and magic, and since this book is at its heart a murder-mystery, it was hard not to spend the book falling in love with them all and fearing for them just the same. Anyone could be next.
And speaking of characters, it was really neat that a lot of them were queer. Sorina is bi, and Nicoleta is definitely a lesbian, while other side characters were mentioned in passing to be gay, and no one really batted an eye at it. Luca was ace (demisexual, actually), too, but I think that warrants some discussion, so hold onto that for a minute.
Actually, no, let’s get into that now, because it was really bothering me. It was great that there were a number of characters who weren’t straight and it wasn’t a big deal. It was neat that no one looked down on sex workers except the obvious antagonists you’re not supposed to sympathize with anyway. There was this overall air of “hey, so be it, be you,” and I liked that. But none of the characters seemed able to wrap their heads around the idea that someone might not experience sexual or romantic attraction. It was gossip-worthy in the book, almost scandalous, and that really rubbed me the wrong way. In a traveling city full of magic and death and thieves and all manner of things, one person who isn’t interested in sex is a big deal?
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD, though, because it got worse. It turns out that Luca, ace as he is, with eyes only for Sorina, is one of her illusions, one she can’t remember making, one she made in her loneliness and desire for a lover. So not only is being ace rumor-worthy, he was created, popped out of Sorina’s magic and imagination, as if no one else in that world is ace and he was designed that way. And while the book ultimately comes to the conclusion that the illusions are real people with their own lives and choices, not just imaginary friends, puppets on strings, it still sat poorly with me the way Luca’s asexuality was framed.
SPOILERS OVER NOW if you’d like to look again. The rest I can tell you about without giving anything away, and on the whole I was pleased with the rest. I do wish the conclusion hadn’t felt so rushed (plus I can’t tell if there will be a sequel or not), and that the clues to the mystery had been a little more fairly scattered (a mystery is always more fun if the audience could solve it early because you’ve given them the hints, but they don’t because they don’t know what to look for until it’s too late), but I liked that it progressed quickly, and I liked how the murders were explained. There were also little illustrations in the book that ramped up the tension and made me worry who was going to die next, which was clever and slightly cruel (I’m already worried enough for these characters!). On the whole, it was a good read, exciting and atmospherically enticing, which is always a delight. If there’s a sequel, I hope to hear of it soon, and I wonder what other dangers Sorina and her family could get into.
Have you read Daughter of the Burning City before? How did you like it? And what other carnival sorts of books have you read and enjoyed? Better yet, tell me about your favorite YA murder mysteries, because there just aren’t enough of those that I’ve read yet.