Goblin Secrets by William Alexander came on to my radar via Betsy Bird at Fuse 8. When it was named as a National Book Award Finalist I moved it up the TBR. When it actually won the NBA I figured it was time to get serious about reading it. Two months later...It took me longer to get to this than it should have. My experience reading it has some resemblance to this. I was intrigued by the beginning but found myself easily distracted and not overly interested so it took me longer than it should have to finish it too.
In the town of Zombay,
there is a witch named Graba who has clockwork chicken legs and moves
her house around—much like the fairy tale figure of Baba Yaga. Graba
takes in stray children, and Rownie is the youngest boy in her
household. Rownie’s only real relative is his older brother Rowan, who
is an actor. But acting is outlawed in Zombay, and Rowan has
Desperate to find him, Rownie joins up with a troupe
of goblins who skirt the law to put on plays. But their plays are not
only for entertainment, and the masks they use are for more than
make-believe. The goblins also want to find Rowan—because Rowan might be
the only person who can save the town from being flooded by a mighty
Goblin Secrets is a book with great atmosphere. The city of Zombay comes to life, sights, sounds, smells, and all. This is a world that the reader is dropped into, no explanation, no hand holding. As usual with well-constructed fantasy, I consider this to be a good thing. There is a steam punk element added in as well that makes it slightly different than most fantasy settings in MG novels and gives it a slight edge.
I really enjoyed what Alexander did with the concept of theater and acting. Why putting on plays is forbidden in Zombay is one of the mysteries the reader must discover as the story unfolds, and it was the one I was most interested in. It's an odd thing to forbid when the city seems to have bigger problems. I also liked how the Goblins were not a separate race but "changed" humans. Humans who had chosen or been forced to undergo a transformation into something other. I was a little annoyed when the hows and whys of this were not fully divulged by the end of the book. The title is a little misleading. I also felt the ending was a bit rushed.
The book has many of the elements I usually love, an interesting world, twists on old standards, fascinating themes, and a mystery. Yet I found myself not caring at all. I think it is because Rownie didn't do much for me as a character. He was sort of flat, always carried along by what was happening, reacting instead of acting himself. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but I like to see some change or growth when a character does this and I didn't. Rownie was pretty forgettable and as a result so is the book. Graba never really inspired any great fear in me either. I never thought she was an actual threat to Rownie. He felt she was. The author was telling me she was. But I wasn't feeling it. Maybe it is because she is a pale reflection of the legendary witch she derives from.
It is a good entertaining book that will delight any young person who loves fantasy, particularly if they are looking for steampunk elements.