The Bone Doll's Twin By Lynn Flewelling
“Black makes white. Foul makes pure. Evil creates greatness.”
Bone Doll's Twin chapter 1
This book was recommended to me by my little brother, yes, that's right being related to me means your recommendations get to the head of the line. Frigid Reads makes no bones of practicing old fashion Family Values and there's nothing more old fashion then letting kin jump the head of the line!
Anyways back to books. Written by Lynn Flewelling whose first book Luck in the Shadows was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award and picked by the editor of Locus Magazine as best first novel. The Bone Doll's Twin is a fantasy book published in 2001, it is Ms. Flewelling 3rd or 4th book and the beginning of a new series. This is the first book of her's I've read though. The story itself maintains a dark and creepy atmosphere through most of it, the offsetting moments only strengthening the overall themes running through the story.
The story is set on the peninsula nation of Skala, a former imperial province of another power (Plenimar) that lies across the sea from it. Nor it is the only nation with this background. Once under the rule of Priest Kings, Plenimar ruled all the nations bordering the inner and outer sea (which honestly look like the same bloody sea to me just broken by the peninsula of Skala but what do I know?). However like all empires do eventually, it fell and many of the provinces made their own way. Skala and other nations that share the sea with it must contend with Plenimar's constant attempts to bring them back into the imperial fold and in addition with Plenimar raiding their nations for goods and people to carry off into slavery.
Skala is in luck however as the gods of the setting have promised that as long as a Queen sits on the throne. For 300 years the divinely sanctioned Warrior Queens of Skala have held the nation safe and ensured it prospered. Which is actually a problem... Because the book opens with a King having planted his ass on the throne.
Now to be fair to King Erius, he did it because the Queen at the time (his mother) was batshit insane and killing everyone! That's a pretty good reason to overthrow a Monarch I think. Less defensible are his actions after taking the throne. For example... Murdering every woman who had royal blood expect his half sister, who he married off to a powerful nobleman for his support. This is where the story begins. Let me say up front that I really enjoy the villain, King Erius and his servants. He clearly starts out with good intentions and slides into villainy in the pursuit of staying in power. I can almost hear him rationalizing every act he does as being for the good of the nation... And if the good of the nation should make him more powerful and secure.. Well, it's all for the best isn't it? It makes him very human and understandable. Don't get me wrong, I hate his guts because he's a fucking baby murderer and an increasingly tyrannical ruler who is dragging his nation down in a paranoid quest to secure his own power. But it's a paranoid quest that makes sense and I can actually see a person doing! That means a bit to me.
Another villain is the King's wizard henchmen Niryn. As Erius paranoia grows, he suspects wizards and priests of plotting against him (to be fair... He ain't wrong) and with Niryn creates his own organization of wizards to register, number and police the wizards while beginning a bloody suppression of the priests of one god, while favoring another. Niryn is rarely ever present physically in the book, but his hand is often in evidence. In the white robed King Harriers enforcing his will, in the dead bodies being strung up everywhere our characters follow. In the numbering system that he enforces on behalf of the king and the system of informants and secret policemen that he creates. While the motivations of Niryn or his past are never discussed, it seems clear that he desires wealth and power, especially power over his fellow magic users. Additionally this is all done without ever making either of them view point characters. Which is good work in and of itself. So full points there!
The prologue is magnificent, focusing on a pair of wizards, Iya and Arkoniel, who are teacher and student. Iya, the elder of the two is the person to blame for this whole story. As she is granted a vision while visiting a oracle, which convinces her that she has two jobs. First, create a wizard organization and school. Second, put a queen back on the throne. The first job is easy and just involves traveling around the country to talk wizards into the idea. How does she intend to do the second job you ask? Lies, Politics, Black Magic and Infanticide (our Heroes ladies and gentlemen.). The only woman left with royal blood in her veins, is the King's little half sister Princess Ariani, married to the Duke Rhius an old war buddy of the King... Who now has doubts about being buddy buddy with a guy who has clearly gone over the line. Worried about his country and tempted by the thought of putting his daughter on the throne... He agrees to Iya's plan. The plan is simple. Ariani is pregnant with twins. A boy and a girl. Iya tracks down Lhel, a witch belonging to the original people of Skala who have been driven into the hills by the main characters people a long time ago. Lhel practices a different kind of magic then Arkoniel and Iya. A magic forbidden to them. Combining their magic abilities will allow them to craft something more then illusion but less then a full shape change to make Rhius and Ariani's daughter look and feel like a boy to everyone. Including herself. All they have do to do it... Is kill her twin. Iya makes it happen.
Iya is one of the main view point characters here and she is an interesting one. A woman and a wizard in her 3rd century of life. She shows a lot of certainty and courage. Having been granted a vision she is determined to do her part no matter the cost to herself or sometimes the cost to others. Iya frankly makes Abraham look like wuss here. Having been given orders by her god and told if this doesn't happen her nation is heading to ruin and destruction, she does not hesitate or turn aside. She spends years in the countryside tracking down wizard after wizard to recruit them into her secret society of wizardly cooperation. Making each one swear to support the Queen to come, leaving Duke Rhius to deal with the fall out of her actions that awful night.
Duke Rhius is another character who despite not getting a lot of time on center stage is made entirely human. He is up to his neck in a conscirpy to defy his best friend and to be blunt kill one of his children to save the other from said best friend (let me just say God save us all from such choices). He does this by lying to the wife he loves, the captain of his men who is practically a brother to him, dealing with forbidden magics and afterwards doing whatever it takes to keep the King from being suspicious. He does this all despite the guilt and doubt that is clearly gnawing at his soul the entire time. He is the only character in this little plot to ask hey wait a minute couldn't we do this another way? While his doubt is shown openly by having him question Iya and later Arkoniel. Ms. Flewelling shows this guilt subtly without having him beat his breast or whimper in corners about the state of his soul. This is a book where you'll have to pay attention to catch these details but they're there. Sometimes they pop out in his dealings with his wife, who was driven insane by the fallout of that night... And his daughter Tobin.
Ah, Tobin. Our protagonist and main view point character.... And the source of most of my problems with this book. Just for the record, I am going to use feminine pronouns for Tobin despite the fact that physically she's a boy in this book. Her boyhood is a magically created lie to protect her, she is actually a girl and for simplicity sake's I'm simply going to refer to her as a girl. After that amazing prologue/1st chapter... I am forced to deal with several chapters of 7/8 year old Tobin trying to piece together just why her life is the way it is. Why is her mother insane? Why is her father often gone? Why is she haunted by a angry spirit that torments almost everyone in her home? Why does she live in a fortress out in the middle of nowhere? You know... Questions we already had have been fully shown the answer to! Frankly I hate that. I hate having crawl through a character figuring out things we already know. There's no mystery or excitement in that! There's only me waiting for the bloody character to catch the fuck up so the story can go somewhere I haven't been! I don't blame Tobin for this, as far she knows she's the first born son of one of the most powerful men in her nation and she is a perfectly normal boy... As far as she knows. Tobin isn't written as a genius child either (which I am okay with)or has Harry Potter but as a perfectly normal kid all things considered. Which means she is terrified of her mother, adores her father and is in turns freaked out and utterly enthralled by the spirit that roams her home. She also is consumed with the desire to be the greatest warrior possible. Mainly I think because that brings her approval and attention, which she gets very little of from her parents. She also gets a lot of acclaim for being an artist has she is capable of great works with wood and wax. I enjoy this part of her character. I am forced to spend more time with Tobin flailing about then I would like, while Iya and Arkoniel are out doing interesting shit. That honestly annoys me, Tobin is the least interesting person in this book but is also the one person I have to spend the most time with.
Thankfully, Ms. Flewelling fixes this by having Arkoniel come to live with Tobin after yet another tragedy slams into her life. Let me talk about Arkoniel, because he is a character we also spend a lot of time with as well. Arkoniel is a young man full of idealism and fire and that loads him with guilt and a powerful desire to do right by Tobin and her family. He also has a vision from his god and it drives him to make his own path in life, leaving Iya to become a tutor and protector to Tobin eventually. He fully believes in the future that Iya is pursuing but hasn't bought in fully to her methods in some cases I think. His relationship with Lhel is a complicated one, he wants the knowledge she has whether it be forbidden or not. But he's also afraid and tempted by her. He doesn't want that knowledge for power sake though, but for two reasons. One he thinks he'll need it to guard Tobin from her enemies. Two, for knowledge's own sake. Arkoniel is one of my favorites here and I enjoyed anytime he was the center of the book. His constant quest to try and do right by Tobin and give her a decent life while everyone else kinda sees her as a tool to be used or a precious object to be hidden way makes him a breath of fresh air.
Arkoniel's return also brings the witch Lhel back into the picture to explain things to Tobin and teach her how to control the angry spirit... Who is the ghost of her murdered brother, chained to her by the magic Lys and Lhel performed the night of their birth. The key to controlling the spirit that Tobin names Brother? A doll crafted by her mother that hides the part of the physical remains of the boy (I did mention creepy right?). Arkoniel also brings in another child character, a country Lord's son named Ki.
Ki is bloody awesome. His appearance compels Tobin to do things and interact with someone beyond an adult-child level. I am supremely thankful for Ki being in this book. He is easily my favorite character. The only person here with a sense of humor and an earthy easy understanding of people. Add in a devoted loyality to Tobin and you got a great kid running around in this book who humanizes Tobin to a great degree. Ki is also the only one willing to meet Tobin at her level and accept her for who she is. Frankly, to my thinking that means there's a huge target on the poor boy's back.
On the flip side we have Lhel, who I am of two minds of. Lhel seems less of a character at times and more of a plot device. Her job is to pass information on to other characters, often challenging their understanding of the world around them and to represent a completely different way of life. But I'm often left groping for a handle on her character. I get that she's a practitioner of an older, rawer form of magic than Iya and Arkoniel with different rules (Iya and Arkoniel get their powers by having ancestry that isn't entirely human and live under rules to maintain it, Lhel gets her power through... I'm not actually sure). I get that she's a representative of a different people and has a different way of viewing things. I don't get what she wants or what she actually believes besides some grab bag Wiccan style paganism with yin/yang elements. She's left her home to teach Tobin and Arkoniel and lives out in the wilderness for years maintaining a watch over Brother and she claims that's the price she bares for creating the spell that makes Tobin look like a boy in the first place. But I'm left with more questions then answers and I'm not entirely sure I believe Lhel.
After Ki is introduced, another tragedy hits and Tobin is forced to come to live in the capital. There we meet Tobin's cousin, the heir to the throne and his court. The prince is a nice teenager, if rowdy but slowly going to rot being left in the capital with no responsibilities and a strong desire to join his father in his wars. We also made very aware of certain realities that Tobin has been sheltered from. First off, draugth and plague have been hammering the country for years now. The poor ride the ragged edge of starvation, which only makes them more vulnerable to plagues that flare up killing thousands if not more. Also... Tobin's home is at war. Sick of the constant raiding and needing loot to pay for imported food (and something to keep people's mind off the idea that this might be a punishment from the Gods for having a King instead of a Queen like they were told to), King Erius has gathered together an alliance to attack Plenimar directly and teach them a lesson. This war is however increasingly costly. This section is rather brief but we do see more portents, as Tobin sees more ghosts and spirits. We also see the children of the nobility that frankly are a mixed bag.
The story starts with Tobin's birth and ends with her... Well let me be blunt about it, it ends with her having her first period. Which is the event where Tobin finally learns that she is not a boy and what happened to Brother in the first place. Sadly, we don't get to see the fall out of this in the book. The book ends there with Lhel creating an even more powerful spell using Brother's bones to keep Tobin looking and feeling like a boy and Tobin reeling under the revelation that her entire life has been a lie. That made me scream with frustration right there! You've been building up to this the whole book and then you tell me to get another book to answer the question! Dirty Pool Ms. Flewelling, this is behavior I hate when I see it from Hollywood, forget the book industry. Still I knew this was a trilogy going in.
The Bone Doll's Twin gets a B-. Well written and masterfully plotted but making me deal with a kid stumbling about to find answers I already know for chapter after chapter and not letting me view the full resolution that you've building up to is going to cost you. I do however recommend it if you're into dark fiction and willing to start a new series. Hopefully when I pick up the 2nd book, Tobin will be more interesting.