The Fifth Doll by Charlie Holmberg
(just take a moment to enjoy this beautiful cover)
I have a feeling this book review is going to end up on the short, inchorent side.
For one, I’m tired. Only because I’ve been up and at ’em since 7:00am with work, then domesticky stuff, then school junk.
For two, I’m stopping mid-note taking so I can write this up for posting in the AM. So I’m in a bit of a time crunch.
For three, I really don’t have a ton to say about the book.
For four, did I mention I’m tired? Yeah, that.
Here’s the thing: I’ve read almost all of Ms. Holmberg’s stuff. It’s really kind of weird. I never end up loving her works, but, at the same time, she creates some of the most incredible worlds. Her Paper Magicians series, the idea of origami as magic, it was just such a whimsical and breathtaking take on a magic system. I loved it. The magic system that is. The books…eh, well that’s still kind of up in the air. Maybe one day when I read book 3 I’ll know how I feel about the whole thing. And her stories always have an underlying darkness, which I kind of love. Followed by Frost, which is definitely my favorite, made me want to cry at the pain and the desolation surrounding Smitha’s cursed existence. I can still feel the relentless, biting cold that permeated everything around her. It was exhausting and miserable and kind of hard for me to read.
The Fifth Doll wasn’t quite like either of those (though it is similar to her Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet). It’s really more of a fairy tale. Matrona is kind of like the village spinster. She’s in her late 20s and not yet married. All that’s about to change when she receives a marriage proposal from the village butcher. Finally! Her dream of becoming a wife is about to become a reality. It’s all she’s ever wanted, to be married, to have a home where she is loved and cherished.
But her plans, her dreams, her life are all about to become upended by the simple act of finding a paintbrush. Matrona, always one to do the right thing, knows that the paintbrush must belong to the village tradesman, Slava. Entering his home, with the intention of returning it, she discovers a secret: Slava has a collection of dolls that bear an uncanny resemblance to each person in the village. Matrona, in her curiosity, unwittingly alters one of the dolls, and that one alteration changes everything.
Somehow the dolls, the village, and Slava are all tied together. Slava, discovering Matrona’s trespass, wants her to become his apprentice, but to do so, she must first open her 5 dolls, one every 3 days. As the secrets are revealed, Slava and his past become more and more menacing and Matrona becomes more and more desperate for answers. Matrona doesn’t know who she can turn to with such weighty knowledge, but she ends up putting her trust is Jaska, a much younger butcher who she shamefully has feelings for. Together, they begin to peel back to layers of the Slava’s secrets, and ultimately begin to reveal their true selves…
Once again, Ms. Holmberg has come up with this incredibly unique premise. The idea of lives being tied to these Russian nesting dolls was really, really interesting. But for some reason, the story did not live up to its potential. Slava, who is our “bad guy” in this story, is not really present enough to be a convincing villain. In my opinion, his biggest villainy was his unnecessary secret keeping, even after taking Matrona on as an apprentice. That is such a peeve of mine. Matrona also mildly annoyed me. If I were her, I’d have been dying to learn Slava’s secrets, but instead she fought him at every turn. And by fought, I meant she ran and hid just FYI. She wasn’t a bad main character, I just think she was a little boring. In fact, I think that was the problem: it was all just a little bit boring. And the ending was just kind of ho-hum. It was fitting, I think. It was the optimal outcome, I think. But I wasn’t really rooting for it one way or the other, if that makes sense.
However, this is a fairly short book and there are enough interesting parts to make it worth finishing. I listened to the audio book narrated by Angela Dawe, who I really like, so that also helped. I’d say, if you like books that have a fairy-tale-esque feel and are looking for a short, filler book then go ahead and give this a try. It’s not life changing, it’s not incredible, but it works well enough for what it is.