William Alexander's Goblin Secrets
Book review by Monica Friedman
Rich Fantasy Novel for Children Wins National Book Award
The criteria for winning a National Book Award elude me—I hated the last NBA winner I read—but if they include an epic level of invention, a cast of fantastic yet believable characters, and a world of surprising but meaningful constructs, then this book has earned every accolade.
It’s a beautiful dream of a novel, which transports the reader from the mundane to the sublime, with a beguiling quietude that makes the unexpected even more surprising.
It’s all about pain and love and transitioning from childhood to adulthood while overcoming all the stumbling blocks that fall into a life.
Rownie is a hungry orphan who, along with a motley assortment of unwanted children, lives his life in thrall of Graba, a perplexing and crotchety witch with clockwork bird legs. She’s a real Baba Yaga type, who periodically relocates her house (without telling the kids who depend on her for shelter where it’s going) and holds half the city in awe of her power.
But, in a moment of clarity, which looks like madness in his world, Rownie decides that some things are more important than fear of a witch.
The universe of this story is a complex one. Graba rules over the slums in the south side of Zombay, while the mayor’s orderly forces control the more prosperous north. A river runs through the city, and the two sides are connected by a bridge wide enough to hold the homes and shops of those who choose to live in “a sanctuary. No one ever got arrested while still on the bridge.” The river, or so they say, is always threatening to flood, overwhelming Zombay and wiping out its population.
In this world, automatons are powered by coal, but coal can only be obtained by burning hearts (you can use fish hearts, but human hearts work best). People can have any and all of their parts replaced with mechanical ones, although they seem to lose some percentage of their humanity in the process. Theatrical performances and the wearing of masks are strictly forbidden and punishable by law. Only goblins—“Changed” beings who live long and magical lives—may circumvent the restriction, but anyone with a little skill and a lot of conviction may practice magic.
As the story opens, Rownie wants only to find his long-lost brother, who has disappeared without a trace, but an encounter with a goblin acting troupe leaves him hungry for the thespian life. Suddenly, he’s willing to risk what little liberty he has for the chance to wear a mask on stage, no matter the risk. But Graba isn’t willing to let him, or his brother, go without a fight. Meanwhile, a deeper plot is afoot, one that could very well decimate half the city (obviously, the chaotic, impoverished half).
Goblin Secrets is a triumph of storytelling, a gripping and detailed narrative that takes the reader to unexpected locales while offering all its characters room to live and breathe. The themes of familial love and a sense of belonging form the warp, with Rownie’s growing need for mastery and personal accomplishment forming the woof. As such, this humble and bright novel encompasses the most important tropes of children’s literature, providing the power to drive straight to the heart of readers of any age.
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