The first thing that stuck me about Painted Doll was the very mannered, structured and layered language; clause upon clause of dense evocative phrasing which could serve to push readers away, but instead drew me deeper into Domino's world. The effect is a little like standing on a beach with the waves of a rising tide lapping at your toes until you're standing calf deep without really having made the decision to get wet.
The chaotic, dystopic future in which Painted Doll is set is expertly sketched amongst this layered detail. It is sufficiently fully realized to be concrete and real; sufficiently impressionistic to leave me with intriguing questions. I suspect the Ecole Polytechnique's creature may not be an obvious choice for a sequel, but the glimpses we're given into his/its mind really grabbed me.
This rich, layered language also heightens the erotic scenes in the novel - both the artificial professional sessions, where Domino wields distilled emotions without so much as touching one finger to her male clients, and in the more innocent and earthy remembered sex she shared with her female lover, Flower.
It must be admitted that the story is let down by some poor proofreading, which has let assorted typos, missing words, and formatting problems mar the text. This is a real shame as other details - the choice of title font, and the fans used as section breaks, for example - were so spot on. At the same time, there's more het sex and male-gaze than I was expecting from the back-cover blurb.
That said, the only element of the story itself that left me unsatisfied is that I am still, after two readings, unsure if the moment when Claire miss-steps, bringing the action to its climax, is meant to signal extremely strongly her fear and confusion, or if I have miss-interpreted how Domino's neuroscopic art works. I suspect the flaw may be mine.
As a fan of the epistolary novel, it was an unexpected joy to find this vein of letter-based story telling running through this cyberpunk thriller. Although we never meet Flower directly, her character and her voice shines through. We only get to see the first flush of their love affair through the cracks in the masks of Domino's new life, but I could still see why they would fall in love, why it was worth risking so much to be together, which means that what happens to Flower as the story comes to an end really hits home.
This isn't an easy romance, either in its plot or the reading experience, but it is a very strong, compelling story which drew me in, and which I will remember for some time. M. Christian masterfully slides between the different parts of Domino/Claire's identity, building and revealing the world, the character, the conflict at the heart of the story, and it's a grand ride.