Friday, December 7, 2012

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

I struggled with this National Book Award winner. Not because it lacks originality. The creepy steampunk setting with gear-transformed people, witches, and goblins was well done. Not because it lacked character development. The weird witch, river spirit, goblins, and orphans with a plucky protagonist were engaging enough. And not because of a plot that plods. The 200 page book is concise and clues are slowly revealed. It was unpredictable and imaginative. So why couldn't I immerse myself in the story?

It wasn't a complete loss - I loved the witch Graba, patterned after the fairy tale witch Baba Yaga in Russian folklore with her unpredictable temperament and dangerous ways. In this tale, it is not the house, but the witch herself who lunges around on giant chicken legs made of gears and metal using monstrous talons to grab wayward children. What a great twist on the original! Speaking of twists... Graba gives Rownie a home with food but he is mistreated like the other orphans she takes into her home that echos characteristics found in Oliver Twist's Fagin. Machinery has replaced human parts in the city of Zombay; the police have glass eyes with gears for irises and the animals have coal hearts. Graba has taken in Rownie and his brother, Rowan, but Rowan has disappeared. Rownie joins the goblin theater troupe because they are searching for Rowan. The goblins need Rowan to speak to the river and prevent the flood that threatens the city of Zombay; however, the goblins are not welcome in the city and it is illegal to put on their show which results in all sorts of trouble for the troupe. Rownie combines forces with them only to get caught up in a bigger struggle for power between the goblins, mayor, and witch Graba.

The story is filled with terrific themes from the magic or imagination that comes from within when assuming the identity of a mask to the magic or power that comes from without as symbolized in the witches, mayor, and river spirit; to the social commentary of the goblins being prejudiced by the townspeople; to the humans who can't wear masks to act in plays because it changes them, and more. While there are so many social commentaries, the storyline never stops long enough to explore them. I wanted more of an explanation about the goblin play where the witch uses her reflection to create a bunch of mini-me's who become her slaves; followed by her cooking the heart of one and causing a rebellion. Was this play a suggestion that the witch Graba and Semele were like the rebellious slaves? What is their background? And what about Rowan. Is he with his mother? Why can he wear a mask? How do humans change into goblins? In the end I felt dissatisfied with the overall book and the lack of answers.

The lack of exposition resulted in me going back and rereading passages often and being confused in spots. You really had to figure out the plot as you read along and be patient as the clues unfolded. I kept thinking I missed something but my question would be answered later. As mentioned earlier, not that all questions are answered; you have to come up with your own analysis. I sort of twitched and sputtered through the narrative which never came alive for me. Some spots were jarring or awkward, such as when the characters put on masks and adopted its qualities or when Rownie would think to himself. While not something I noticed all the time, I ended with a disjointed feeling like my gears were malfunctioning. This is a book that I should really reread. I read that the author has a sequel. Most likely some of my questions will be answered. An interesting read.

Reading level 4.3
4 out of 5 Smileys

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