Book Review: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

I’ve been having some reminiscent thoughts lately about some of the favourite books of my childhood, the books I read because I wanted to see groups of friends having adventures and solving problems together, those that focused on friendship instead of romance, while still touching on the shifts that kids undergo as they age. I haven’t been reading much middle grade lately, and I’ve decided that I need to start reading more of it again, because it’s a reminder that somewhere deep inside of us, all these things are still there. Maybe not immediately apparent, but we still have the capacity for play, the ability to slip deep into fantasy worlds, the ability to loyally follow our friends anywhere, to save them from whatever trouble we find ourselves in.

Doll Bones is a book in this tradition, about a group of three friends who play a complex game with dolls, ruled over by the Great Queen, a fragile and beautiful collector’s doll kept locked in a cabinet. Poppy, Zach, and Alice have stuck together through thick and thin though they come through different lives and different experiences, but things start to shift as they enter middle school.

Poppy wants to keep playing, clinging to the experiences of childhood, while Zach’s father brutally pushes him to stop playing with dolls, to stop playing with girls, to be a man, and he tries to end the game. Poppy, however, isn’t willing to give up that easily, and when she says she’s being haunted by the Great Queen, it sets off one more adventure involving the three friends—one that might solve an old mystery, put the Queen where she belongs, and reunite the members of the fractured, troubled friendship.

One of the things I love about Doll Bones is the reminder of how much of a microcosm the world can be when you’re in middle school. Everything revolves around this tiny universe, and the world at large doesn’t really register, except in abstract ways. The friends don’t need to travel all that far to accomplish their goals, but because they’re children, they’re constantly having to come up with innovative ways to get themselves from point A to point B with no money and no adult accompaniment.

Along the way they encounter a range of adults put in their path to thwart them, take some incredible risks, and ultimately prove that they’re resourceful and agile enough to come up with a variety of solutions to sticky situations. But it’s not always simple for them, and Black doesn’t lay out a neat and convenient path for them to follow—they actually have to work to get where they need to go, all while dealing with quarreling within the friendship as they argue about the Great Queen, whether Poppy’s dreams are actually real, and how much trouble they’ll be in at home.

This is also a text that is deeply and deliciously creepy, making it a rather glorious read. The fantasy elements of Doll Bones, the things that cannot be easily explained, really come into full flower the further the book progresses, as the reader becomes increasingly uncertain about what is real and what is not, and starts to buy more deeply into the legend the book weaves. This is a book that definitely works history well also, basing some elements on real-life historical people and places to create a more authentic feel, and that honestly makes it even creepier, because you totally get the sense that these things could actually happen.

The characters are caught in that strange cusp between childhood and adulthood, at times seeming ridiculously, painfully innocent, and at others far too canny. It works well for them given the age group they occupy, and it pulls the narrative into swings with them; it is not quite a simple quest or adventure, it is not quite a fantasy or paranormal book, and it is not quite a book about friends, family relationships, and the shifts that happens as people grow up, though that is a big part of it. It explores how relationships to other people change as people develop more of a sense of self while battling external pressures—these are all characters who are subject to mandates from above to be a certain way now that they’re ‘growing older,’ to take on more of the mantle of adulthood.

Doll Bones is definitely not a simple book, nor one that can be read casually on a superficial level. There’s a lot going on here, and all sorts of things can be probed, but the book’s handling of gender and imposition of gender roles is particularly important and fascinating. Zach’s desire to give up the game, you see, isn’t based on simply feeling like he’s aged out of it and giving in to pressure from his father.

It happens because his father ruthlessly throws out his dolls one day, thus making it impossible to play the game. Since it’s crafted around a particular set of characters and they rely on those characters, Zach feels like he can’t play anymore, but he doesn’t want to admit that the incident happened, or that he’s experiencing mixed feelings because of his father’s pressure as well as that of society. Zach, in other words, is facing a crisis of masculinity in the book which serves to underscore the immense pressure put on young boys to behave in a certain way, to give up undesirable behaviours by or before middle school, to become something they may not be in order to please a society that says boys cannot play with dolls.

Black’s deft handling of the plot, snuck into the larger story, made the book that much more compelling and interesting, and I suspect it will resonate with some readers of all genders who are thinking about gender roles and the insistence that they perform gender in specific ways.