The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg
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The Fifth Doll is an excellent fantasy novel for pre-teens and young adults. Charlie N. Holmberg has written several novels about young heroines who face the trials and tribulations of life and magic. The current novel gives readers not only an interesting plot that keeps them guessing, but also a bit of cultural history about what life might have been like in an early 20th century Russian village.
Matrona, the daughter of a dairy farmer, is unusual in at least two ways. She is an only child, and, at age 26, isn’t married yet. Her family and the carpenter’s family have arranged a marriage for her. She hopes she will come to love her aloof betrothed, but she is secretly attracted to the potter’s son, Jaska. Matrona’s village is unusual, too. No one has ever left, except Slava, the tradesman. Slava leaves the village periodically with his horse and cart, into the surrounding forest, and returns with goods from the outside world. No one else knows what that world is like.
The weather is almost perfect. The villagers have never experienced a freezing winter and have no concept of what snow is, but Matrona has nightmares of gray skies, rows of box-like houses unlike the village’s colorful farmsteads, trodden dirt roads and the sound of tramping feet.
Matrona accidentally enters Slava’s house and discovers a room full of nesting, or matryoshka, dolls. Each doll has the painted face of a villager. Slava has a secret plan, and Matrona is an unwilling part of it. Each doll has power over its original. Slava forces Matrona to open her own doll one doll at a time every three days. When she refuses, he threatens her family.
When Matrona opens each doll, there are disturbing consequences. Her secret thoughts are revealed to the entire village, she has excruciating headaches, and hears an inner voice chastising her for her faults. Her vision is alerted. She sees faint lines in the sky and snow for the first time! Matrona can’t escape through the forest. Each path she tries leads her back to the village.
If she opens the fourth doll and reveals the fifth, Slava’s plan will be complete and Matrona will be his substitute. What is his plan? What is in the outside world? Can Matrona and Jaska save themselves and the village? Holmberg keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Robert D. Yee