Good writing and good characters make for a winning combination, and this trilogy is no exception.
The first installment, The Bone Doll’s Twin, is a true jewel. Heavy exposition is a real problem for me. The merest whiff of a scene being used only to map out what happens further on leaves me bored. The Bone Doll’s Twin, however, is a beginning which doesn’t suffer from a sense that this book is here to get the ball rolling. It also doesn’t read with the taint of the author’s eagerness to get to the next installment, and the splits between all the novels are neat.
The overarching plot of the trilogy follows Tobin, the supposed nephew of the usurper king, Erius. Taking us through his troubled childhood and into the early years of his adulthood, the trilogy concerns Tobin coming to terms with the fact that ‘he’ is, in fact, a woman, concealed at birth by some truly disturbing magic to protect her from the King.
The gender identity themes are perhaps the only ‘original’ elements in a work that otherwise utilises an abundance of fantasy tropes, from prophecy to swordsmanship and a wise old woman. Flewelling really shouldn’t get away with the amount of familiar territory she plays with, but, annoyingly, she does.
This is because the writing is strong, and the characters demonstrate such excellent development, in the case of both protagonist and supporting cast.
Tobin/Tamír is unusually likeable for ‘The Chosen One’ role she is destined to fulfil, in part because her dark backstory is not sidelined to a prologue or some dramatic revelation. The back story is the story, following through until the denouement, rather than conveniently falling to one side along the way. When Tamír is strong we can see why she is strong, and it is by this that Flewelling neatly avoids the common pitfall of the warrior woman being hard to relate to.
Other characters also serve to give this trilogy real personality, from the lovable grass knight, Ki, to Brother, a particularly sinister vengeful spirit. Also Tharin, Arkoniel too, and Lhel… you get the picture. The only place things really fall down in terms of the cast is when it comes to the bad guys.
Erius thankfully takes the back seat behind his son, Korin, who is an excellent evocation of a weak boy in a strong man’s armour, but I was somewhat disappointed by the ultimate nemesis, who, whilst very cruel, doesn’t offer much by way of unpredictability.
Also, the battles were a bit rushed, and in places rather vague. I don’t care for lengthy descriptions of how the army positions its trebuchets, or for ‘she slashed, she hacked, she won’ type scenes, but the combat elements of this trilogy would have benefited from some more meat.
There are many other selling points, however, and one is character diversity. This is not a book that sets out to represent everyone, but it does feature a refreshing mix of sexualities, and fares well when read as a feminist narrative. Also, the obligatory romantic subplot doesn’t shy away from its transgender veins, providing a dogged love story that really had me rooting for a satisfying conclusion.
There is also a wealth of interesting relationships between characters, and the trilogy does an excellent job of being a book about someone, whilst digging deep into more than one person’s life.
Rating from The Bone Doll’s Twin alone, I would give this trilogy a five, but the sequels fall just shy of the top mark. Four stars is, however, something of an injustice.
I’m feeling generous. Final rating: 4.5.