It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic opening line than, "My people lay down your stones." Martine Leavitt starts her magnificent new novel, The Dollmage, in this way, metaphorically gripping her readers by the throat, a grip she never loosens until the whole sorrowful tale of two magically gifted girls in the village of Seekvalley is brought to its inevitable, and horrifying, close.
Seekvalley is an isolated village in a world where magic holds sway. The prime embodiment of this magic is the Dollmage, the woman who tells the stories and creates the dolls which represent everything and everyone in the village. If a new house is to be built, a model has to be made by the Dollmage and added to the villagedoll in order to ensure its reality and survival. At the birth of each child, the Dollmage creates a promise doll, a doll that both predicts and holds the child's future. Dollmage Hobblefoot is the most powerful woman in Seekvalley and it is she who speaks those chilling, opening words, and who goes on to tell the story in an attempt to persuade the villagers not to stone Annakey Rainsayer to death.
The Dollmage, nearing the end of her life and fearful of losing her powers, makes a pronouncement that her successor would be born on a certain day. Unfortunately, four babies are born that dayłtwo boys whose sex precludes them from being the Dollmage, and two girls, Annakey and Renoa. The Dollmage is forced to choose and, instead of making an objective choice, she allows her feelings to come into play, rejecting Annakey in favour of Renoa because of her antipathy to Annakey's mother. This choice and the Dollmage's actions as the girls grow up lead to disaster for everyone. Renoa is undoubtedly talented, but it is a wild, undisciplined talent, one which she wields too often to bolster her sense of power.
Annakey, too, shows her magic, despite the many slights she suffers at both Renoa's hands and those of the Dollmage, and it is a much purer magic, as Annakey possesses the beauty of spirit and maturity to wield it wisely.
Martine Leavitt plays subtle games with her reader, especially in her choice of the unreliable and self-seeking Dollmage Hobblefoot as the narrator who gradually reveals how her selfishness and fear have warped so many lives, finally bringing Annakey to the point of a ritual death which she does not deserve. It is a measure of her skill in creating characters, for even though the reader dislikes Dollmage Hobblefoot, Leavitt also engenders sympathy and understanding for her, just as she does for the wilful and proud Renoa who is shaped, like a doll, by the Dollmage.
Although the characters are in some ways, almost archetypes, Leavitt's unflinching portrait of them also highlights their humanity. This, when allied with her rich but spare prose, her detailed world creation, results in a powerful fantasy novel that moves beyond the usual "quest" theme. It will both satisfy readers and challenge them, raising questions about how set a person's future can be and what responsibility all must bear for their own actions.
Gillian Chan is a writer whose latest book is The Carved Box published by Kids Can Press.