Published: 25 July 2017
After discovering a room full of matryoshka dolls wearing the faces of her village, a woman learns she may be trapped inside one–but unraveling the sorcery carved into each doll unleashes dark consequences that rip her from the only home she remembers.
Rating: 5 Stars
Charlie N. Holmberg has a way of crafting magical worlds that I’ve never thought of before. While there may be some familiar elements, she bends them to her will and creates people and places and systems that weave together into a story that has me reading until the last page.
The Fifth Doll is the story of a woman, Matrona, who is living a relatively content life. She is not as respected as she’d like, being an unmarried woman at 26, but that will change with her marriage to the butcher. After a fateful decision, however, she finds herself stumbling upon a secret that encompasses her entire village and spans the past twenty years. Now, she has to work alongside Slava, the mastermind behind this magical secret, and in doing so decide whether she will comply with his wish, to become his protege, or to work out the magic and free her people.
While reading Matrona’s journey from an unsuspecting villager to the person that pulls back the curtain, I never thought for sure that I knew where things were going. There were hints as to what Slava had done, like when the villagers didn’t know what a lock was or what the word snow meant. There were things that were unexplained before the big revelation that I never expected to be answered, only to get to the end and realize that it was interwoven in Slava’s machinations from the beginning, though not by his intentional design. Simply put, there was just so much going on in The Fifth Doll that you’re swept away, just like Matrona, and while you might pick up on some of the minute details that hint at the future she’s hurtling toward, you might also be like her and miss them while trying to work out the bigger picture.
There is an interesting concept that Matrona and Slava debate toward the end of the novel that I found interesting.
Slava turned the villagers into the enchanted matryoskas in order to save them from Tsar Nikolai II. He made a decision to save them from something that he saw as a threat, all without consulting a single one of them. Matrona thought that this was wrong and even asked him why he would hide their memories of Russia if this life within the dolls was so good. She condemned him for this decision and sets about trying to set the village free from Slava’s enchantment.
From that point on, she makes the decision to break them all out, no matter the cost. At the cost of the peaceful life they had, one with no war, no hunger, perpetual summer, she was determined to get them all out. With only scant memories of her time in Russia from when she was six and returned to her when one of her dolls was opened, she makes the choice for all of them. It never occurs to her that this action is somewhat hypocritical, that she is doing exactly what she condemned Slava for. Matrona’s betrothed, Feodor, even makes the very same observation to her when they’re back in the real world. Some of the villagers may not want this. The world they’ve come back to is cold and the peasants they’ve stumbled upon are dressed poorly, housed in buildings a lot smaller than the villagers had had within the Doll World. While, yes, Matrona’s actions do mean they’re free from Slava, what harm has she actually brought to them?
We never learn how many of them are pleased with this turn of events or how many would have preferred to remain within their comfortable world. It reminded me of the ending of the Matrix series, where the humans and the Machines come to the decision that humans can disconnect if they feel they’re ready, if the truth would not be too harmful. Matrona disregarded what her fellow citizens might have thought and made a decision, one that she thought was best for all, just like Slava. In the end, she was more like him than she cared to admit.
The revelations and the consequences of not just Matrona’s actions but those of Slava and other characters in this story made for a gripping story that I had to read nearly straight through. Holmberg’s writing made a for a pleasant reading experience and her research into Russian culture included clothing and building details that I did not recognize from books I’ve read in the past. Her creation of this atmosphere got me right into the story and did not let me go until the end, where I am left both satisfied and questioning the characters. No one is perfect in this book, whatever they think about themselves, and maybe that was the point. Making the best decisions you can while not giving into self-doubt and criticism and outside forces.
I’m looking forward to her next book, because there is always the possibility that the story started here as not ended.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.