This is me, slowly making my way through the Cybils Middle Grade Spec Fic finalists.
The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
The boy has known nothing but the life of a slave, and believes further that being a slave is his proper lot in life, as chosen for him by the Fates. He even does his best to remember and follow all the laws of being properly obedient to a master. But when he is sent to accompany one of his master’s sons on a journey and the son ends up dead, he must decide very quickly how deeply he believes in these laws and his life gets very much more interesting. Quickly taken prisoner yet again, he and a goblin named Mennofar help rescue each other. Mennofar doesn’t believe in fate at all, and keeps pushing at boy’s beliefs.
At the same time, in another kingdom, a very unpleasant duke works a spell and causes a dragon to kidnap a girl named Alice. Unfortunately, the dragon gets the wrong Alice. He ends up kidnapping Plain Alice, a common girl who wants nothing more than to be a sage like her father, if only the other sages would let a girl take the exam. The dragon, Ludwig, turns out not to be the beast the duke thought, but is both clever and bound by the spell set on him. Princess Alice is left to deal with her own, different set of problems.
Goblins in this world can see the future, but their natural distain of humans keeps them from being open about what they see. The boy is allowed to ask Mennofar one question a day, which he uses to try to find out who he is and what he should be doing with his life. Will he ask the right questions? And what is the goblin leading him towards doing?
There are many layers to this story, as well as more point-of-view characters than you’ll usually find in a middle grade novel. On the surface, of course, is the adventure, with life-and death struggles for all three children, ranging through countries and across mountains. The boy doesn’t have a name at all, a choice that brings the horribleness of slavery to the surface. (While he is described as having dark skin while the two Alices have light skin, both of these skin tones are normal to the kingdoms they come from, not social markers.) There are also fun logic puzzles involved, as you might guess by the title. It was a little hard to buy that someone raised in slavery would buy into it as thoroughly as the boy does at the beginning, but his journey to freedom – both for himself and the girls – feels authentically his.
I’m still waiting on two of these finalists to show up at my library. Here are the rest of them: