Steampunk fantasy for kids in an entirely fictional city – and it won this year’s National Book Award. I checked it out with a bunch of books before it won the award, and had forgotten I had it by the time the awards were announced.
Goblin Secrets by William Alexander.
Rownie doesn’t have much memory of time before he was one of Graba’s gang of children. Graba feels like a sister to Baba Yaga, with a house that moves around on its own around the city of Zombay, though the chicken legs are clockwork and on her rather than on the house. She has a flock of unwanted, hungry children, most of whom don’t even know their real names. Rownie’s own name, as the one girl with a real name, Vass, tells him, is just a diminutive of Rowan, his missing older brother. Rowan disappeared some months ago after taking part in a play, which it is illegal for humans to do. For masks are magic, and only goblins, who are Changed from being human, can count as not-human enough to perform plays. As our story opens, a wagon of goblins comes into town. So desperate is Rownie to see their play that he buys a ticket with Graba’s money. Then he is desperate enough to ask the actors about his brother. And then Rownie is in trouble. He acts on the stage, without being Changed – and the Guards, with terrifying gears in their eyes, are after him. He has stolen from Graba, and Graba is after him. In desperation, he turns to the goblins, who take him in and treat him kindly despite their alarming appearance. The goblins are also concerned about Rowan, whom they said was a fine actor.
The actors wear masks, and the masks have power, power to make people believe that the wearer is who the mask says they are, and also power to subtly change the world around them. As Rownie wears a mask to conceal himself, he feels the power of the fox running through him. And Rownie and Rowan’s safety is not the only issue – Graba and the Goblins both feel that floods are coming, that the river that runs through Zombay will soon overrun its banks and wipe out large portions of the city. The city itself is a character in the book, divided between the geometric streets where the wealthy live in their large, clean houses on the north side, and the teeming, tangled streets of South side, which Rownie knows inside out.
Though there are lots of steampunk elements, including clockwork horses that run on coal made from fish hearts, the city guards fitted with gears, and Graba’s mechanical chicken legs, these are not the focus. This is a story of a search for belonging, of the power of words and belief to change the world, and the importance of trust and care. Rownie’s story is definitely an adventure, but it’s one with heart, and it’s the humanity of it that makes it so magical, at a level that works for both kids and adults.