One of my favorite things about Young Adult novels is that they often aren’t as bound to tropes as adult books are…adult in the sense of for adults, not in the sense of X-rated. Just to be clear. Anyways. Doll Bones by Holly Black, who also cowrote the Spiderwick Chronicles, is creepy as fuck—um, hell. Creepy as hell. So let’s start with that.
1—Quiet Dread and the Unquiet Dead
Ms Black creates a pervasive sense of unquiet through this novel, starting on page one. Zach, our viewpoint character, and his two best friends Poppy and Alice, live in a slowly dying small town. Each of their lives are out of their control—a fact not just of childhood but observed in those of the adults around them. The fear of growing up to be just as weary and beaten down as the adults in their lives underlies the more overt horror of the Queen—a doll that seems all too alive.
But this isn’t another living killer-doll story. The Queen is a ghost, filled with bones and ashes. And once freed of her glass prison—the curio cabinet where Poppy’s mother has kept her locked up—she begins to drive Poppy to find her grave. And through her, Poppy’s friends. Tormenting them with nightmares, destroying their belongings. Of course, the Queen isn’t the only destructive force in the kids’ lives.
2—My Heart Broke For The Characters
Alice’s aging grandmother strictly hobbles her life and activities. Poppy’s siblings are uncontrollable, mean-spirited bullies. And Zach…Zach’s father left him and his mother for several years and he can’t understand why his mother allowed the man back in their lives. This relationship starts out strained and uncomfortable and only gets worse.
Zach, Poppy, and Alice all escape their lives in a game of make-believe. Creating worlds from Poppy’s yard and the hills and junkyard beyond. Each doll and action figure is its own distinct character, heroes and villains with lives and stories that intertwine. They’ve been playing this game for years and it’s what binds them so close. So when Zach’s father throws out all his heroes—kills all the people he’s spent years of his life with—because Zach “needs to grow up”, Zach’s temper finally breaks. He breaks. Zach can’t bear to tell his friends that their game, their heroes, are dead. So he just stops playing. He lies to Alice and Poppy. And Poppy, desperate to draw Zach back into the game, steals the Queen, and sets the children off on a quest to bury her.
I’ve been playing imagine games for as long as I can remember. Every character I’ve created is real to me. I know exactly how import those dolls were to Zach. I feel the empty pit in his stomach, his chest. I feel his desperation and denial. I feel his rage. I feel his helplessness. I feel his grief. And I feel the desperation that consumes Poppy. I feel the fear of reprisal holding Alice back from their last adventure. It’s few books that make me cry and I treasure them.
3—Magic or Madness
This book epitomizes the trope called maybe magic, maybe mundane. It’s impossible to tell if the Queen is really possessed or if Poppy is making the story up. And later, if Poppy is possessed by the Queen or loosing her mind. That uncertainty just makes everything scarier. Knowing for certain what the problem is would mean it could be dealt with. The kids could focus their efforts and energy on one solution. Instead, they don’t know what to do. The solution to one problem would just make the other worse. Anything they do could be the wrong thing. And the further from home they get, the worse all their problems get.
There’s both a rational and magical explanation for everything that happens, and no hint which might be the right answer, the real reality. I love it. Doll Bones is the best example of maybe magic, maybe mundane I’ve encountered in any medium. I only have one complaint.
4—The Book Ends a Bit Abruptly
There’s no real denouement. There’s resolution to the Queen’s story, and resolution to most of the kids’ problems with each other. But the resolution between Zach and his father, and between Alice and her grandmother—and her grandmother and her aunt—are only hinted at. No idea what happens with Poppy’s family, though I get the feeling it won’t change. But that’s the thing. I don’t get to see any of that. I’d have liked to. Not an 80s movie “this is where they end up” life-wrap-up, but I’d have at least liked to have seen them get out of the cemetery and meet up with their guardians again. Instead we end with the kids looking on as the cars pull up. So not totally satisfied on that front. But satisfied enough to recommend the book and to re-read it.
So that’s how I’m ending this post. Short. Go read Doll Bones. Just not right before bed.