Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doll BonesDoll Bones
Holly Black
Margaret K. McElderry Books
First Edition:  May 7, 2013
ISBN 978-1-4169-6398-1

Now this is the kind of horror story I wish was around when I was a kid.  Instead, I got to obsess on flying monkeys.

Zachary Barlow is 12 years old, and even though his body is growing by leaps and bounds, and he’s getting pretty good at basketball (which has the guys in his class “wanting to hang out more, slapping him on the back, and laughing louder at his jokes”, and the girls… well, he just doesn’t get the girls), he still enjoys playing make believe with his beloved action figures.  He and his good friends Alice and Poppy make up elaborate stories and them act them out with various dolls and toys:  swashbuckling adventures of the dread pirate William the Blade, shadowed by the notorious thief Lady Jaye and, at least in this case, a band of evil mermaids who are threatening the Neptune’s Pearl, diverting it from its mission for the Great Queen.

He’d been looking forward to crossing swords with the leader of the mermaids, who knew the way to an ancient underwater city full of secrets – including the secret to completing the Queen’s quest and lifting her curse – plus there was the promise of fighting sharks.  There were even hints that they might find a clue to William the Blade’s parentage, plus the treasure of the Shark Prince – piles of gold and jewels so vast that Lady Jaye had been questing after it since she had first heard the story as an orphan beggar child.

But as he moves towards his teen years, Zach’s normally absentee father returns and decides that it’s time for his son to man up a bit.  He comes down heavy handed on the boy, and Zach, in frustration and embarrassment, is forced into quitting the game the friends had built.  The hard part is convincing Alice and Poppy that the decision is his, rather than confess the real reason behind his withdrawal.

The Great Queen has other ideas, though.  She is actually an antique china doll with eyes that click open and shut, golden curls, and paper-white skin, who sits in a locked glass cabinet in Poppy’s living room.  (Poppy’s mother is convinced that the doll is valuable so the children have been forbidden from touching it.)  Due to a nightmarish experience that Poppy swears really happened, they end up incorporating the doll into their game (to keep her from being “too terrifying”):

According to the legend they created, the Queen ruled over everything from her beautiful glass tower.  She had the power to put her mark on anyone who disobeyed her commands.  When that happened, nothing would go right for them until they regained her favor.  They’d be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.  Their friends and family would sicken and die.  Ships would sink, and storm would strike.  The one thing the Queen couldn’t do, though, was escape.

In an attempt to get Zach to come back to the game, Poppy steals the key to the glass cabinet and takes the china doll.  But that night with the doll hidden in her room, she is visited in a dream by the ghost of a girl named Eleanor who strongly resembles the toy, with yellow curls and pale, pale skin, wearing a nightgown streaked with mud.  The ghost tells Poppy that she has to bury her, and that Poppy would be sorry if she didn’t allow the ghost to finally rest by returning her bones to her true grave.

Thus begins a quest that is real, not a figment of the friends’ imagination – or is it?  At first Alice and Zach aren’t quite sure if what Poppy is telling them is true, or if it’s just another way that she’s trying to control an elaborate game.  But it soon becomes clear that something else is determining their destiny, and what started out as a grand adventure, slowly but surely turns in to an increasingly creepy experience that threatens to tear their friendship apart.

Now, creepy dolls are really, really creepy.  Like evil clowns, they take something innocent and make it freaky bad.  And this doll, this Queen, this manifestation of a dead (murdered?) girl grows in creepiness as the story progresses, not just in the supernatural factor but in the real life aspects of the tale that come to light as the three friends search for information that may help them in their otherworldly quest.

But what is so spectacular about this book is that in amongst all the strangeness, and during that which is the most creepy, author Holly Black never loses the voice of her three main characters, especially Zach.  They are, first and foremost, youngsters on the cusp of change, and while the Queen/Eleanor and her quest may be confusing and frightening, no less so are the new emotions and confusing thoughts that come with the transition between childhood and becoming a teenager.  Ms. Black handles this confusion, this bewilderment, on the part of the three friends deftly and with just the right touch to make them completely believable.  No matter how far into the bizarre the story is driven, there is still a very human and innocent touch cradling the narrative at the edges.

If they were real, then maybe the world was big enough to have magic in it.  And if there was magic – even bad magic, and Zach knew it was more likely that there was bad magic than any good kind – then maybe not everyone had to have a story like his father’s, a story like the kind all the adults he knew told, one about giving up and growing bitter.  He might have been embarrassed to wish for magic back home, but there in the woods, it seemed possible.  He looked over at the cruel, glassy eyes of the doll, so close that she could have touched his face.

Anything was better than no magic at all.

And, conversely and most satisfyingly, the more “normal” the three friends seem, the more frightening the creepy parts become!  It’s a wonderfully eerie dynamic, one that’s not built on blood and gore and gratuitous gruesomeness but nevertheless will make for a few vivid dreams and possibly a sleepless night or two for an impressionable young reader.

Don’t be afraid of having a young reader experience this book, though.  Scary it may be in places, and it definitely has its macabre plot twists, but those can be wonderful ways to pique the imagination – and there is so much more to this book than just the bizarre.

Besides, it could be far, far worse.  There could have been flying monkeys!

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