My family and I were just quasi-playing a game called Booktastic the other night (quasi as in just reading questions from the cards rather than actually playing the game), when the question came up to name an award-winning book whose awarding you just didn’t get. I believe I chose an entire year of finalists one year for the National Book Award (All five. Every one.). Now though, I’d have to add this year’s winner for Young People: William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets. Alexander’s debut novel isn’t by any stretch a bad book, but it is, in my mind, under-developed and unfocused and in the end, unsatisfying.
Goblin Secrets (2012) is set in Zombey, a beguiling creation of a city split into two parts: upper class, clean Northside, with its straight streets laid out in a grid, and lower-class, cluttered and crowded Southside, full of winding, twisting lanes and alleys. Both have powerful (and adversarial) figures: the Mayor for Northside and Graba the Baba Yaga-like witch for Southside. Between the two and spanning the always-threatening-to-flood river lies the Fiddleway Bridge, a sort of no-man’s land and considered a kind of sanctuary. Steampunk permeates the setting — the Guards have clockwork legs (their Captain also has clockwork eyes), Graba has clockwork chicken legs (like Baba Yaga’s hut), and various geared creations come and go. The humans and quasi-human share the city with goblins, known to themselves as The Tamlin, and also referred to as the Changed, as they are former humans who have gone through some kind of transformation.
The protagonist is Rownie, a young boy who, like other street urchins, has been collected by Graba to run errands. His brother, Rowan, has been missing for some time, ever since he was nearly arrested for defying the Mayor’s ban on acting and performing plays. Rownie’s story begins when he gets caught up with a performing troupe of goblins (being non-citizens they aren’t tightly bound by the ban). It turns out that the goblins, and nearly everyone else, are also looking for Rowan, and soon Rownie is caught up in trying to find his brother, elude the angry Graba, and save the city from the devastating flood to come.
Alexander presents a lot to like here: the clockwork elements, Graba’s Baba Yaga echo, the way theater and masks work their way through the story, how nature/myth/magic intertwine in the form of the river and its floods, the idea of goblins as “changed” humans, the manner in which magic permeates the action via sung charms, living masks, etc.
My problem, though, is that many of these concepts were just presented, with none of them really delved into enough or shown in full enough fashion to really compel. How do humans change into goblins? We don’t know. How does magic work, who can work it, what can it do? We don’t know. Why does Rownie have “some talent for masks” and what does that mean and why not others and how does Graba know that? We don’t know.
It isn’t so much that everything needs to be wholly explained, magic can be somewhat of a mystery, one can have a fabulist sort of story where the strange is just presented as simply existent, but it’s a fine line in fantasy sometimes between creating a sense of ambiguity and wonder and just leaving things a bit of a muddle. And because all of these aspects play such key roles in terms of plot here that it was hard to enjoy the story without a nagging sense of thinness and arbitrariness throughout. The thin presentation also means that it lacks a certain richness, the kind that allows ideas that have at their base a sense of familiarity — clockwork men, masks as metaphor — don’t feel fully owned as original creations save for a few fleeting moments (such as an absolutely wonderful and poetically original puppet show).
This same thinness diluted the emotional impact of both plot and character. I can’t say I ever felt much of anything for Rownie — partly because he is passively reacting much of the time, partly because his interior is a bit flat. And the same can be said of the side characters — none of whom really came alive for me.
Because I didn’t get grabbed by the characters, the story developed a bit too slowly for my liking, leaving me impatient as to where it was going. Things began to pick up around the time of the aforementioned puppet show, and once we had a sense of how the goblins and the floods meshed. But then, just as one felt the story was getting more focused and more fully developed, it became too abrupt.
In the end, while the underlying ideas were charming, there were too many missed opportunities. As one example, after a fight with a number of suddenly embodied masks, one of the goblins says: “That was very strange. I got a little bit in character whenever one of my masks came close to me, and that made it really hard to fight when they were the weepy kinds of characters who made me feel like swooning.” And I thought how better it would have been had we actually seen the goblins dipping in and out of character depending on the mask they were fending off, rather than having a relatively non-descript character tell us after the fact what we could have been seeing.
I did enjoy Alexander’s writing, which can be both economical and poetic in turn or simultaneously. Another 50-70 pages of development, a better balance of scene and summary, a bit more world-building, and a stronger connection to character, and I could see Goblin Secrets becoming an enchantingly quirky and captivating story I’d enthusiastically recommend. But as is — a solid but frustrating work — it’s more a tease of what could have been.