Zach, Poppy and Alice are friends who have known each other forever. The three love coming up with awesome stories and to play them out with their action figure toys. Their current story follows pirate ‘William the Blade’ and his ally the thief Lady Jaye on a quest for ‘The Queen’, whose role is played by an ancient china doll. When they reach a point when William the Blade is about to find out the truth about his past, the unthinkable happens: Zach’s father throws away all of his action figures because according to him, at 12, Zach should no longer be playing make-believe.
Zach is furious, isolating himself due to his shame and confusion. He closes himself off and completely stops playing with his friends. However, one night the girls show up at his house saying Poppy has been contacted by the ghost of ‘The Queen’ – who claims that her soul is trapped in the china doll which has been made from the bones of her murdered body. The only way to free her (as well as the kids from its haunting) is to find where the girl used to live and bury the doll.
Adventure ensues as Zach, Poppy and Alice run away from home and go on their – this time, real – quest.
Doll Bones was not quite what I was expecting. I thought this was going to be a good old romp with a strong horror bend, and in a way it was. There is a lot of fun adventure to be had and the doll is genuinely creepy especially since, for most of the book, we (and the characters) are not really sure if this is all happening in reality, or only in their imagination. But those aspects are almost bare foundation, and the author then builds a story with a stronger focus on relationships.
The relationship between the three kids is held together by their love of storytelling and creativity. Above all, I feel this is a tale about three kids on that threshold between childhood and adolescence, which is deftly, thoughtfully handled by Holly Black.
Zach’s father’s thoughtless action of throwing away his toys propels the story in a very interesting way. It is an outside force that informs internal conflict: adults telling kids they can no longer be kids, and that their hobby of choice are either childish and undesirable. The kids have to grasp this idea, and choose whether they internalise it or question it.
There is a very interesting conflation, in this novel, between the toys and their ability to continue with their game. Zach for example, believes he can’t play without them, but are the toys an essential part of their game or just tools? Similarly, Poppy, Zach and Alice are all on the pinnacle of adolescence but in very different ways. Poppy, for example, is still desperately trying to hold on to what they have now, whereas Alice and Zach are almost eager to embrace change. Do finding new ways of interacting with the world, becoming interested in different pursuits as well as forming friendships with other people mean that their interaction need to change, or that their friendship is no longer meaningful?
The answers to those questions are not clear-cut, and in the end there is a feeling that things will have to inevitably change, but not necessarily in a fundamental way. Storytelling, creativity and role-playing are activities that can be equally important to adults and teens, as it is to children. In addition, each kid’s family is also extremely important in how they interact with the world, and I found this really interesting as each child had a different background, creating a more dynamic and diverse story. I really appreciated that Zach’s father’s action is addressed in the story very nicely and with unexpected poignancy.
In the end, Doll Bones turned out to be not as creepy as expected, but far more thought-provoking than I predicted. All in all, a very good read.
Working in collaboration with Jodie Loves Books