I’m a bit late with this one, but here it is: my review of the long-awaited new Charlie Holmberg book, The Fifth Doll, which came out in late July.
The Fifth Doll centers around a not-quite-young woman named Matrona, who is living out the life of a dutiful daughter and soon-to-be wife in a rural village. When she falls into the power of the mysterious Slava, she is forced to train to become the next keeper of his creepy nesting dolls–one doll for every person in the village. In order to fully understand the connection between the dolls and the villagers, Matrona must slowly open her own dolls. But the secrets that emerge with each cracked layer threaten to destroy not only her own carefully built life, but that of the entire village. Complicating Matrona’s terrifying dance with the supernatural are the intricate web of social life in a tiny village, her stirring rebellion against the patriarchal strictures of her life, and her forbidden love for a younger man.
Almost the first thing I noticed about this book was the fantastic pacing. Although I was getting interrupted every few minutes to nurse the baby, put the toddler in her high chair, get the toddler out of her high chair, walk the baby, change everybody’s diaper … I had no trouble staying engaged with the story. Even when forced to put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and take it from a mother of two–that’s pretty hard to do
As in all of Holmberg’s books, the worldbuilding here shines. Like her one-time teacher Brandon Sanderson, she creates innovative and fascinating magic systems, but where Sanderson builds his magic into sprawling epics, Holmberg focuses (perhaps even more so in this book) on the intimate details of individual lives–the calluses that build on a milkmaid’s hands, the superstitions that lurk in doorways, the fraught daily interactions between a grown daughter and her parents. I love the fresh feeling this gives the setting, which helped me immerse in the story.
The ending won’t come as a surprise to experienced readers of fantasy, but the journey to get there is strange, wonderful, and heart-rending. Holmberg resists the temptation to tie things up too neatly, and as a reader, I left the book feeling both satisfied and challenged.
Although Followed by Frost remains my favorite Holmberg book, The Fifth Doll is a worthy addition to her canon. I strongly recommend it for all fantasy fans who enjoy intimate settings, innovative magic, and heroines who find that their own rescue lay inside themselves all along.
I preordered this book months ago. Then, probably because my brain was overloaded with pregnancy hormones, I preordered it again. I thus have an extra copy to give away! If you’d like to participate, leave a comment below, telling me about your favorite childhood doll and include some way for me to contact you if you win (twitter handle, link to your blog, whatever). I will select a winner one week from today. This contest is open to US addresses only.
GIVEAWAY NOW CLOSED.
Congratulations to Meigan, our randomly selected winner!