A stunning display of story telling
I’m writing this review assuming you’ve already read the first volume of this trilogy, so if you haven’t beware spoilers. And I heartily recommend you go and read the first book. For those of you who have, the first question must be where are we with this middle volume? Is it going to be 550 pages where a lot of the dramatis personae are marking time while a quick tour of everyone else gets all the pieces in the right places for a dramatic third instalment? Thankfully the answer is no.
The Bone Doll’s Twin ended with the onset of puberty leading to Tobin’s discovery that she is in fact a girl, not the boy she has been magically disguised as since birth. Now she and everyone around her, both in and outside the secret, have to deal with the consequences. In less skilled hands, this could be the cue for tedious pages of teenage angst. Alternatively, Tobin could have just shrugged off the revelation with unconvincing ease, thus fatally undermining the apprehension so painstakingly built up through the first book. I’m glad to say Lynn Flewelling doesn’t disappoint, following a devious path through denial and confusion where Tobin’s soul-searching is always informed by the grim reality of her story. Now the stakes are higher than ever; if she is discovered to be a female heir to the land of Skala, where the vicious King Erius rules in defiance of prophecy demanding a queen, she is dead. And so are all the people who’ve raised and loved her. Questions of obligation and independence have no easy answers for anyone in this maze, adding a welcome depth to the tale.
As the story unfolds, Tobin realises simply keeping her head down isn’t an option. As companion to King Erius’s son Korin, Tobin sees at first hand the corruption of the regime, not least in the plundering of her own inheritance. She sees the persecution of wizards whom she has good reason to know are trying to do their best for the realm, for all their hard-hearted connivances in service of their prophecy. That merciless prophecy has an increasing impact on Erius and Korin as father and son struggle with the danger that neither will leave an heir to their ill-gotten throne. The disruption of the natural order of their rule spreads misery further, to leave the land gasping under drought, people and amimals dying. Increasingly, the populace look to Tobin, collateral heir to the throne through a respected father and a fondly remembered princess. And growing up means a prince comes into lands and vassals of his own. Tobin becomes a player in the games of state, in a way she could never have done, had her true sex been apparent. As with the questions of free will, issues of equality are woven into the subtext here, but always in keeping with this imagined world.
With war and pestilence arriving to join death and famine, the games turn deadly. Tobin has to draw on the lessons she has learned as a prince to fight for a future as the rightful queen. She has to play her final wild card in a transformation scene that weaves a masterful spell to suspend disbelief, where it could so easily have snapped beyond mending. She finally confronts the tragic ghost of her dead twin brother and various accounts are settled. After all, magic always comes at a price.
With all this going on, you may well wonder what could possibly be left for a third volume. For a start, Tobin has a war to conclude, a realm to restore and a sceptical nation to convince of her true nature. There are already rumbles of dissent: after all, would you believe a story like that? No, neither would I, if I hadn’t seen it. Then there’s King Erius’s faithful, treacherous wizard Niryn who has been keeping certain cards very close to his chest. Now he’s ready to show what he’s been holding. Personally, I can’t wait to see who ultimately collects the winnings.
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.