The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling. ★★★★
The Bone Doll’s Twin is the first installment in a gender bending high fantasy series set in the same world as Luck in the Shadows. The connection between the two series is loose (The Bone Doll’s Twin takes place at least several hundred years before), and they can be read completely independently. I actually wish I’d read The Bone Doll’s Twin first, since I liked it more than Luck in the Shadows.
A divine prophecy says that the kingdom of Skala will be prosperous as long as a queen of royal lineage rules. But a king usurps the throne and starts killing all potential female heirs. When the king’s younger sister gives birth twins, conspirators use dark magic to give the female twin the guise of her brother, killing him in the process. The secret heir is raised isolated from court and away from the king, haunted by the demon of the dead brother and the madness of their mother, without any idea of the conspiracy.
Something important to note about The Bone Doll’s Twin is that it’s not a complete story. It ends on a cliffhanger and is very much a “Part I.” This book also isn’t a story based around action or suspense but is more a coming of age story about the protagonist. I think it’s possible that fans of The Assassin’s Apprentice and Robin Hobb might like it.
I think one of The Bone Doll’s Twin‘s strongest points is the characters. These characters feel well rounded and like they could be real people. Tobin (the protagonist’s current name, I think it will change in future books?) reads like a child and not just a precocious adult. The adult conspirators were also well done, and there was a lot of moral grayness there. In particular, Iya, the wizardly mastermind, makes Dumbledore look non-manipulative by comparison.
One of the things I didn’t like about the book was the heavy reliance on prophecy. For the most part, prophecy feels like a trope used to create hand wavey explanations for dubious reasoning. “Because, it is prophesied!” is a familiar and annoying refrain from the fantasy genre. In this case, it feels like a reason to try and make the conspirators more sympathetic. There actions don’t have to be explained by prophecy, but it provides a convenient alternate explanation to a sheer power grab.
A defining topic of the trilogy is gender, but it is hard to say much at this early point. I think I’d really need to read the second novel to say more. The closest (and obvious) real world parallel is the transgender experience, and I can’t say how that’s reflected in the novel. However, I did find a positive review from a transgender reviewer.
The Bone Doll’s Twin is a haunting coming of age story with an underlying darkness. I look forward to reading the sequel and would recommend it.