Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Rownie, whose name is short for Little Rowan, lives in the hut of Graba, a witch with gearwork chicken legs and an appetite for power. (I was reminded of Baba Yaga, the witch character from Slavic folklore that I read about in Highlights Magazine when I was a child.) Rownie’s mother drowned in the River. His father is never mentioned, and his older brother, Rowan the Taller, is missing, disappeared. Rownie, following in the footsteps of his older brother, is fascinated with acting and with masks even though plays are forbidden in the city of Zombay. When he escapes from Graba, he may be in even more trouble as he joins a troupe of traveling goblin actors who are trying to keep the River from flooding Zombay.

I tried to like this one. I did like some things about it, the language, the metaphors, and the descriptions in particular. Some examples:

“He was afraid of Graba, and he was angry for being afraid and upset with himself for having made Graba upset with him. He pushed all of those feelings into a small and heavy lump of clay inside his chest, and then he tried to ignore the lump.”

“Graba herself never bothered to conceal her moods and wishes–her face was as easily readable as words spelled out in burning oil in the middle of the street.”

“Rownie was also impressed, but he still wasn’t convinced. ‘Actors are liars,’ he said. ‘You pretend. It’s kind of your job.’
‘No,’ said Semele. ‘We are always using masks and a lack of facts to find the truth and nudge it into becoming more true.'”

“Those who gathered here sold more fragile things, like bolts of fabric and delicate gearwork—things that needed to be kept out of the weather. One barge displayed strange animals in gold cages. Soap makers invited passersby to smell their wares. A tall man with pale, deep-set eyes sold trinkets carved out of bone. Another barge-stall showed off small and cunning devicesthat did useless things beautifully.”

However, as much as I liked the word pictures, I just couldn’t become immersed in the story itself. In this book and in Winterling, the book I reviewed yesterday, everything was just too otherworldly and creepy and non-human. Even in Narnia, the talking animals, and in Middle Earth, the hobbits and elves, are somewhat anthropomorphic. I can identify with Frodo or Trumpkin the Dwarf, but the characters in these two books felt almost completely foreign and peculiar and incomprehensible.

Once again, you may find Goblin Secrets to be just the book to curl up with on Halloween night.

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