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Utah author creates magical nesting dolls in new 'Giver'-like fantasy novel

It was while preparing a class on magic systems for the LDStorymakers conference that Utah author Charlie N. Holmberg came up with the idea for her newest book, "The Fifth Doll" (47 North, $14.95, 271 pages).

She wanted to give her class a workshop to practice what she taught, so she wandered around her house writing down random objects like salt, thread, utensils, and planned to give each of her students one of these objects to write a magic system about.

Then, she came across her set of Russian nesting dolls.

Thinking about a magic system involving these dolls inspired Holmberg — and she decided to keep that idea to herself. She floated it by her agent the next week and her agent loved it, and before long her editor was asking for a synopsis.

"I was like, 'OK, let me make a plot first,'" Holmberg said in an interview with the Deseret News.

Holmberg had a completed manuscript turned in within less than six months, and less than a year later, the book is available to the public.

She compares "The Fifth Doll" to Lois Lowry's "The Giver," as Holmberg's new book takes place in a too-idyllic village that hides a mysterious, darker truth. It could also be compared to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," though Holmberg said she has never actually seen the film, so all similarities are accidental.

The main character, Matrona, is 26 years old and finally engaged to be married. In her tiny, traditional village, marriage is what will allow her to leave her home and be acknowledged as an adult for the first time. Until then, she continues dutifully doing chores on her family dairy farm at her parents' demand.

Then she discovers the town tradesman, Slava, has dozens of little nesting dolls in his house that are painted to look like every person in the village. He recruits Matrona to be his protégé who will one day take over the keeping of these dolls — but first she has to open her doll, layer by layer. Each layer brings more painful truth to light, and everything Matrona knows about her life in her isolated village may, in fact, be wrong.

Holmberg said she loosely applied some Freudian theory to the layers of the nesting dolls, each subtlety representing the id, the ego and the superego. She also said she took some inspiration from the world building in Rosamund Hodge's "Cruel Beauty."

She acknowledged that, because of these concepts, things start to get really abstract around the climax of her book. It's true the plot starts to get mind-bending and sometimes plain confusing toward the end, but Holmberg does for the most part keep the dolls' magic mysterious and unknowable so the reader doesn't have to spend too much time trying to understand exactly how it all works.

While Holmberg views "The Fifth Doll" as a fantasy novel, Publisher's Weekly reviewed it as horror.

"I guess it has some elements that are kind of scary," Holmberg admitted. "Maybe they just don't like dolls. A lot of people are creeped out by dolls."

There certainly is a suspenseful, creepy vibe to the book as Matrona unravels the mystery of Slava's nesting dolls and finds out how they're influencing the lives and minds of everyone in the village.

There's also an intriguing romance at the center of the story, as Matrona can't seem to shake her attraction for the potter Jaska, even though he's several years younger than her — and the small detail that she's engaged to someone else. But it's easy to fall for the sweet, attentive Jaska who soon volunteers himself to help Matrona solve what is behind these magical dolls.

Holmberg is perhaps best known for her debut series The Paper Magician, which she published with Amazon's publishing house around age 25. Now a mother of two kids, her writing career has allowed her husband to quit his job and go back to school.

Her advice to any aspiring writers is to write every single day.

"Even just write 500 words, half a page a day," she said. "You'll have a book done in six months."

She also advises writers to get creative and think outside the box. She thinks a lot of writers get rejected not because they don't write well, but because they're writing about vampires and werewolves like everyone else. With Holmberg's history of writing about magic origami and Russian nesting dolls, it seems it would help to take a page out of her book.

If you go …

What: "The Fifth Doll" release party

When: Tuesday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.

Where: American Fork Library, 64 S. 100 East, American Fork