Martine Leavitt, _The Dollmage_

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Thu Feb 13 01:36:02 EST 2003

Martine Leavitt lives in Alberta, Canada.  She has a large family and a
husband and, oh yes, she writes.  Young adult fantasy, mostly.  I had never
heard of her until about two years ago, when I became the secretary for the
AML and got involved with the awards process.  She'd won the Young Adult
Novel award for all three of her novels.  This didn't impress me unduly,
because I knew how small a pool the awards are drawn from and I also knew
that our judges were often haphazard in making their choices.  When I ended
up judging the YA award for 2002, Leavitt's latest book _The Dollmage_ was
among the fifteen nominees.  I almost didn't bother, because it wasn't
easily available, but I decided to be thorough and ordered it.

This is the most amazing fantasy novel I have read all year.

Not all 2003.  I mean the last consecutive twelve months.

Possibly longer than that.

I'm completely serious.  I felt as though I'd had my heart ripped out and
then handed back to me, gift wrapped, and I didn't know what to do with it.
It doesn't look like much; it's skinny, and has a picture of a Goth chick on
the cover looking out in a rather suggestive way.  The style is the sort of
deceptively simple writing you get from, say, Ursula Le Guin, with a
basically Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and an even rhythm.  But the roots go very
deep.  Underneath all of this lie the most basic themes of literature: love
and hatred, deception and fear, pain and redemption.  I reacted so strongly
to this book that I feared my assessment of its quality was unduly
influenced by my feelings, so I made Jacob read it.  He finished it late one
night and stayed awake an hour longer, unable to sleep for thinking about
it.  So either we're both crazy, or I was right for once.  I'm inclined
toward the latter.

The story is about a village of people who live in a valley surrounded by
mountains.  As far as they know, theirs is the only habitable valley in the
world.  The mountains are full of raiders who would descend upon them and
slaughter them if they could.  The reason they cannot is that the people's
magic is bound up in a woman called the Dollmage, who creates
"dolls"--miniature constructions, both symbolic and representational--which
change the way the world is.  A sick person might be given a doll of health.
A pregnant woman might receive a doll ensuring a safe delivery.  There are
even dolls that represent the Gods of the people.  But of all the dolls, the
one most directly tied up with the continuing safety of the village is,
naturally, the village doll.  The name is misleading at first, for the
village doll is actually a representation in miniature of the entire valley
and the houses and people in it.  No one can build a new house without the
Dollmage first constructing it in the village doll, because that would upset
the balance and possibly ruin the magic.

The story begins with the current Dollmage, an old woman, needing to choose
a successor.  On the day that she prophesies her successor will be born, two
girls are born.  While the Dollmage suspects she should choose Annakey, she
dislikes Annakey's mother, so she chooses Renoa instead.  Her choice sets
the pattern for the future, as both girls grow and display different
aptitudes for magic.

What sets this book apart is that the narrator is not Annakey, who is from
the first clearly the heroine of the novel, but the bitter old Dollmage.
She tells the story from the perspective of one who has lived it all, and by
all rights she ought to be the villainess.  Yet had the novel been written
in a more traditional way, with the POV character being the heroine, _The
Dollmage_ would have been little more than your average fantasy story.  I'm
also fascinated with the recurring emphasis on promises; we're told that the
people of the village are a promise-making people, and that once a promise
is made it must be kept.  The implications of this run throughout the novel,
and the distinction Leavitt makes between a promise you demand of another
and a promise you make to someone else is something that applies to our
world as well.

There's so much I'm leaving out.  But to tell more would mean retelling the
entire book.  While I have to recommend it because it is so good, I hesitate
because its availability is so limited.  Red Deer Press is affiliated with
the University of Calgary, and a woman in my book group said she thought
she'd bought it in Ontario, so I imagine it's easy to get in Canada, since
it only came out last year.  I relied on for my copy, but it
takes a long time to ship.  In any case, I highly recommend this book, and I
hope some of you will be able to read it as well.

Melissa Proffitt

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