"Goblin Secrets," a steampunk mystery about a young man searching for his brother for young adult readers, has been named the 2012 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature.
In "Goblin Secrets," Rownie, lonely and wearing his brother’s too-big coat, has been living with Graba, a Baba-Yaga-like grandmother witch who navigates on gearwork legs to avoid Zombay Guard authority.
The macabre town’s security force is driven by coal (provided by brutish physical labor) which fuels the automata available to only a few people, including the Lord Mayor and his gear-driven henchmen.
Rownie escapes Graba’s clutches in a quest to find his lost brother. He joins the Tamlin Players, a vagabond actor’s group of goblins (really the Changed), which are hunted by authorities. Depending on masks as disguises at their illegal performances, the Tamlin players begin training Rownie in a fox mask, which in turn protects the troupe from menacing pigeons that swoop and kill. Ironically, even though the theater is outlawed, the mayor has performers of his own. “I did outlaw the theater. But just because a thing is not good for everyone doesn’t mean that I should not still enjoy it if I can.”
William Alexander’s steampunk novel draws from many elements of folklore: Greek theater, goblins, angels, masks, a magical clock and the stereotypical dark and evil. Descriptions of the automatons (“His irises tocked and ticked in small, perfect circles as he focused on Rownie and bore down on him”) are riveting, as are the masks used as allusions to reality.
The plot of “Goblin Secrets” unfolds in stops and starts with questions looming at each turn of events, some of which are never answered straightforwardly; some not at all. Perhaps Alexander relies on readers’ personal suppositions or the sequel, “Ghoulish Song” to be published in March 2013. In either case, “Goblin Secrets” is not a slick fast read but filled with mystery and a needful suspension of belief. All of which make it a great tale and a worthy award winner.