I have been fascinated by the book covers of titles by Charlie Holmberg for quite sometime but the books were really expensive. Recently Amazon offered a free subscription to Kindle books for a month and I realized all of her books were available free under this offer. Boo-ya!!!!! Could this get any better?
I started with the Fifth Doll which has a pretty intriguing blurb and even more interesting cover. I am fascinated with the concept of Matryoshka Dolls which is from Russia. A set of identical hand painted wooden dolls of varying sizes, nest into each other to form a layer of 5-7 dolls. There is a central seam that run some all along it and one can twist them open.
Title: The Fifth Doll
Author: Charlie N Holmberg
Genre: Fantasy fiction
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The book opens onto the life of 26 year old Matrona, whose parents own a dairy where she helps out. Her wedding has been fixed to the village butcher and together with her pregnant friend Roksana, she is going through an old trunk in her house to gather up her mothers wedding finery. While emptying out the trunk, they chance upon a cloth doll which once belonged to her younger sister Esfir. She was three days old when she vanished from the cradle, leaving her parents broken hearted for the past twenty years.
Matrona has mixed feelings about her upcoming nuptials to Fedora as she harbours “feelings” for 19 years old Jaska who is the potters son. Clamping her thoughts down, she tries to feel grateful for beiing engaged after all.
One day, she stumbles into the study of the village tradesman Slava by accident and is entranced by the curious sight of hand painted wooden dolls sitting on shelves. On closer inspection, she realised that there was a doll for every villager. While she is marvelling at the similarity in facial features, she picks up her fathers doll and absent mindedly twists it open from the seam. Startled by the sound of someone outside, she flees from there.
Back home, she is horrified to see her father in a dazed state, mumbling occasionally. She is convinced it’s got something to do with the doll and hurries back next morning to undo her deed.
“He was still as an oak trunk, silent as a candle.”
Slava opens the door for her expectantly as he is happy to have discovered an apprentice on whom he can pass on this knowledge. Stunned, Matrona quizzes him about such sorcery and wants nothing to do with it. But he threatens to harm her family if she doesn’t comply. He wants her to disconnect from the village and find her centre as guided by him.
Unwillingly she agrees and goes through the steps of opening up each of her doll with an interval of three days between them. Every opening brings her emotional pain at different levels and leaves her drained. After the fourth layer has been opened, Slava tells her that she herself is the fifth doll.
Matrona now can see through people and pick up their thoughts and fears. Tragedy strikes when her best friend follows her one day and discovers the dolls too. Roksana steals her doll and opens all the layers instantly. This renders her insane and Slava then explains to Matrona the reason for three days gap. He also explains why Olia, Jaska’s mother is so mad and hasn’t been cured.
“Condemned by your people. Opened the second. Condemned by yourself. Opened the third. To see who you were. Opened the fourth. To see who you could become.”
Devastated, Matrona tries to heal her friend but the effect is irreversible. She refuses to do anymore of Slava’s bidding but he explains that if she doesn’t make a doll for Roksana’s about to be born infant, he would disappear within three days of his birth. Matrona now understands why her sister had vanished and accuses Slava of being cruel and selfish.
Slava shows Matrona the reason for converting the entire village into dolls. He had saved them from a life of drudgery under Tsar Nicholas II in Russia by setting up this parallel village cast under a spell. No one can come inside it nor can anyone step out of it. He had done it all for the betterment of their lives. He had learnt this art from his spell books and wanted to pass it on to Matrona.
But she is not keen on continuing this sorcery and escapes from his house via the back door. As she hurries home, she is startled by how empty the village seems. On reaching home, she can’t find either of her parents. Then she trips over a small wooden figurine which in fact is her mother’s doll form. She rushes out and finds her father in a similar state.
“Matrona’s heart retreated until it hit her spine, and she quivered with its every beat.”
It seems Slava had turned them all into their fifth doll state. Going house to house, she collects the entire village in their doll form in a bag.
Now Matrona needs to figure out a way to turn everyone back into their human form, break the spell over the village and overthrow Slava’s sorcery. She figures out that since all three of them ( She, Roksana and Olia) are still in human form, it’s to do with the fact that they all had all of their dolls opened up. She assumes to do that for the entire village and see if she can restore them.
What happens when she does that? Do they all revive? Are they sane or rendered mad? Do they ever step out of the village boundary into the real world?
Well you need to read this book to find out more and I hope I have intrigued you enough to pick up this book.
Lasting impression on me:
This is my first reading of this author and I must say I loved her story idea. I managed to read the book in one day as I was hooked onto the plot and wanted to know what will happen next.
The prosaic sentence forming has made it a delightful read, as the mind easily conjured up the images the author was trying to present in her narration.
Having said that, I wish the author had been a little more careful in unearthing the plot. Slava’s history and reason behind creating the dolls was sketchy as was the magic. I couldn’t be understand how and why the agriculture came into force. Why did people go mad when their dolls were opened in quick succession?
Then there are details which are left unsaid but needed to be fleshed out more. For example the relationship between Jaska and Matrona could have been fleshed out more to establish a convincing romance.
Overall I was left with a sense of half elation and half disappointment as I was not charmed by the dry story telling and missed a convincing flow in the narration.
I have given a rating of 3 1/2 stars to this book and would say pick it up if you are super fascinated by the cover and concept as I was.
You could check out my post on books by Laini Taylor here