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 disappeared.
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 river.
I completely see why this book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Normally, hearing a book won an award makes me cringe. As a child “award winner” meant adults thought the book had a wholesome message that would be good for a kid. In other words those books bored me (most still do). But Goblin Secret is that rare creature – an entertaining book that deserved to win a national award. On its surface, Rownie’s search for his brother and his dabbling with masks and acting is a compelling story. There is adventure, danger, new allies he’s not completely sure he can trust, and the mystery of his brother’s disappearance ends up being linked to an even larger problem, which Rownie, of course, has to solve. But the book also deals with loss, the powerlessness of being a child in an adult world, and why pretending is a good thing for children and adults. The higher themes are woven in and out of the main plot, so they never feel heavy-handed or didactic. Rownie comes to his own conclusions in his own time, letting the messages grow slowly without shoving them down the reader’s throat or hitting them over the head. The use of masks to symbolize pretending and the search for identity is well done. And the touch of magic associated with the masks makes the idea that much more compelling.
What I liked about the novel, was also what I didn’t like. (Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming.) While I liked the plot and the themes in the novel, the book really sticks close to the points its making. The main narrative is tightly written. Unfortunately, there are a lot of little details about the world that are dropped and never fully fleshed out. Given that there are supposed to be more books written about Zombay (Goodreads notes that Goblin Secrets is Zombay #1) I’m guessing that the world will be developed in subsequent novels. Right now though its frustrating to have so many tantalizing ideas dangled in front of you with no pay off. How are children changed into goblins? How can you take out a person’s heart and use it as coal? What made the river so angry that it wanted to flood? Sadly because the reader only knows what Rownie knows these details aren’t explained. I can see this frustrating many readers who enjoy in-depth world building. You are left wanting more. However, I have to admit that if all the explanations were given the story would be side-tracked from the main narrative and the themes would get lost. I suppose the little hints at the wider world of Zombay could have been left out, but then the world would feel flat.
This is not a book you scan. This is a book you must read, word-by-word. There are too many details that hint at bigger events. If you skim the book there is a good chance you’ll wind up feeling like you’ve missed important bits. Much of the world building is very under-stated. If you enjoy world building more than plot, then this might not be the book for you. But if you like a bit of philosophy mixed in with your adventure, then sit back and enjoy. You’re in for a good time.
3 out of 4 Throwing Stars