Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Twin's Doll (Bantam Spectra 2001) is a vivid example of what a good writer can do with a relatively limited plot. A King, afraid of a prophecy, kills every female in the line of succession to secure his position and assure his continued reign.
Flewelling takes this skinny plot and and slowly and lovingly fattens it with character and setting. She uses the traditional Bildungsroman format to show the gradual education of a young boy, Tobin, who is sequestered in the woods, away from the medieval city of his birth, and resides in a crumbling estate with his deranged mother and the angry ghost of his dead brother.
However, as is true in most fairy tales and fantasy novels, prophecy has a way of bypassing or frustrating the political machinations of individuals who attempt to circumvent its workings. Fate, like water, seeks its own level and the same is true for prophecy in this well-written, character-driven, first volume of Flewelling's Tamir Trilogy, where two wizards, a witch, and the brother-in-law of the King perpetrate violent actions and employ dire means to protect an infant from the King's assassins.
Tobin, a strange child, artistic and shy, has a number of secrets: he is haunted and at times tormented by his dead brother's ghost; he has a friend, a witch, named Lhel that lives inside a tree in the woods; he has a doll that his mother has made with which he is abnormally attached; and he seems to have some powers of forethought.
Within the context of the plot, Flewelling slowly builds her secondary world; giving it substance and weight gradually by incrementally measuring out descriptions only when the plot demands it. Tobin's world resembles early medieval England sometime around the 12th century: reavers raid the coast and wizards and witches walk the roads between the walled cities, while strange predators inhabit the thick forests.
I picked this book up because I was a bit bored with the usual fantasy fare that is coming out these days. I had heard that Flewelling dealt with human sexuality frankly and I was intrigued. And when I say sexuality, I'm talking about gender and desire, not graphic scenes of sexuality. There are plenty examples of that in the latest fantasy tomes arriving each month. I was more interested in a writer's ability to create believable female and male characters within a fantasy context, illustrating both the similarities and differences that emerge from gender. Flewelling creates indelible characters through detail, through the minute rendering of everyday events within the context and logic of her created secondary world, and thereby illuminates their basic natures. I found myself drawn quickly into Tobin's rough, and lonely life, through the descriptions of his daily activities, his interactions with the other characters, and the psychological struggles that naturally manifest themselves as he matures within a home, where madness, ghosts, and plain fear reside and rule.
The Bone Doll's Twin seems writ on a smaller canvas than most heroic fantasies but its limited scope enhances its intimacy, making Tobin more real and precious as a character. I'm looking forward to the second volume. In fact, the ending was so perilous and fraught with danger for Tobin that I'm bit afraid and must know what happens next.