I think it is time to declare the birth of the clockwork children’s novel. If you have been watching the literary trends over the last decade or so, you will note that amongst adults there has been a real rise in interest in a form of pop culture labeled “Steampunk”. The general understanding is that as the 21st century grows increasingly reliant on electronics, there is a newfound interest in books/movies/video games/costumes (etc.) that incorporate steam, gears, and other accoutrements of the visual mechanical past. This is, I should note, almost exclusively an adult fascination. I have never encountered a single child who walked up to a reference desk and asked, “Do you have any more Steampunk?” That said, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work as a genre. The trouble comes when an author tries to shoehorn a Steampunk story into a fantasy mold. The best writers know that if you’re going to incorporate odd mechanical details, the best thing to do is to set up your own odd mechanical internal logic. I think that’s probably what I like best about William Alexander’s “Goblin Secrets”. It’s not the first story I’ve read about a boy joining a troupe of traveling performers. And it’s not the first middle grade Steampunk adventure I’ve come across. Yet there’s something definitely one-of-a-kind going on in this book. An originality that you only find once in a pure blue moon. And that’s worth reading, you betcha.
Rownie’s life hasn’t been worth much since the disappearance of his older brother Rowan. Living with “grandmother”, an old witch named Graba who holds a Fagan-like power over the orphans in her sway, Rownie runs various errands until one day he finds that goblins have come to his city of Zombay. They are conducting theatrical performances, an act forbidden to humans, so it’s as much a surprise to Rownie as to anyone when he joins their little troupe. Rownie is also still determined to track Rowan down, but that may mean using extraordinary means to escape from Graba’s all-knowing, all-seeing ways.
It’s little wonder that the book was nominated for a National Book Award when you take into account the writing. In terms of description, the book has a wonderful and well-developed sense of place. At one point this is what you read, “All roads to the docks ran downhill. They wound and switchbacked across a steep ravine wall, with Southside above and the River below. Some of these streets were so steep narrow that they had to be climbed rather than walked on. Stairs had been cut into the stone or built with driftwood logs lashed together over the precarious slope.” With a minimal amount of words you get a clear sense of the location, its look, its feel, its dangers, and perhaps its beauties as well.
The details found within this strange Steampunk world are delicious, and that is in the book’s favor. You hear about “small and cunning devices that did useless things beautifully.” From gears in mechanical glass eyes to the fact that a river is something that can be bargained with, there’s an internal logic at work here that is consistent, even if Alexander is going to leave the learning of these rules up to the reader with minimal help. For example, there is the small matter of hearts and their removal. To take out a heart is not a death sentence for a person, but it can leave them somewhat zombiefied (the city’s name “Zombay” could just be a coincidence or could not, depending on how you want to look at it). And goblins aren’t born but are changed humans. Why are they changed and for what reason? That’s a story for another day, but you’re willing to wait for an answer (if answer there ever is).
Exposition. It can be a death knoll in a book for kids. Done well it sucks the reader into an alternate world the like of which they may never have seen before. Done poorly they fall asleep three pages in and you’ve lost them forever. And done not at all? That’s a risk but done right it pays off in fine dividends. “Goblin Secrets” takes place in Zombay, a fact you find out five pages in. It’s a city that contains magic, a fact you find out on page three. There are goblins in this world (page twelve) but they didn’t start out as goblins (page . . . um . . .). Facts are doled out at a deliberate but unexpected pace in this book. There are no long paragraphs of explanation that tell you where you are and what to expect. It’s only by reading the story thoroughly that you learn that theater is forbidden, Rownie’s brother is missing, Graba is relentless (but not the only villain in the story), and masks are the book’s overriding theme. In the interest of brevity Alexander manages to avoid exposition with something resembling long years of practice. Little wonder that he’s published in multiple magazines and anthologies on the adult fantasy (not that kind) side of things. Many is the adult writer who switches to writing for children that dumbs down the narrative, giving too little respect to the young audience. I think Mr. Alexander’s gift here is that he respects his younger readers enough to grant them enough intelligence to follow along.
Alexander makes his own rules with this book, and not rules I’ve necessarily seen before. With that in mind, with as weird a setting as you have here, it can be a relief to run across characters you like and identify with. They act as little touchstones in a mad, crazy world. Rownie is particularly sympathetic right from the get-go. He has a missed beloved older brother, an independence that’s appealing, but he’s not a jerk or anything. Nor is he a walking blank slate that more interesting characters can use to their own ends. Rather, Rownie is the kind of character who keeps trying to talk himself into bravery. He does it when performing and he does it on his own (“Rownie tried to summon up the feeling that he was haunting the Southside Rail Station and that other sorts of haunting things should be afraid of him…”). That’s why Alexander’s use of masks and theater is so effective. If you have a protagonist who just needs a little push to reach his potential, what better way than through performance? On the flipside, the bad guys are nice, if perhaps a little two-dimensional. Graba is nothing so much as a clockwork Baba Yaga, mechanical chicken legs and all. By extension the Mayor is a good power hungry villain, if stock and staid. There is no big bad in this book quite worthy of the good folks they face down. Graba comes close, but she’s just your typical witch when all is said and done. A little gearish. A little creaky. But typically witchy, through and through.
By turns beautiful and original, it’s a testament to Alexander’s skills that the book clocks in at a mere 200-some odd pages. Usually worlds of this sort end up in books with five hundred or six hundred pages. The end result is that when a kid is looking for a good fantasy in a new world, they are inclined to be scared off by the thick tomes gathering dust on library shelves and instead will find friends in old classics like The Black Cauldron or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Add to that list William Alexander’s latest then. A smart piece of writing that conjures up a new world using a new method.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby
- The Nine Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis
- Foundling (The Monster Blood Tattoo) by D.M. Cornish
Last Line: “His fingers twitched and his mouth watered, but he waited for his supper to cool.”
Notes on the Cover: The unfortunate hardcover will happily be replaced with a far more kid-friendly paperback. As you can see, the previous incarnation showed a Frankenstein’s monster-esque goblin juggling. Alas the shot made it look as if the lit torch in hand was impaling him. It was a bit of odd CGI. The new cover is a traditional illustration and show Rownie hiding from his possessed former bunkmates. If I were to go with a good cover seen I might go with fighting the possessed masks, but I suspect they wanted to avoid the goblins entirely with this particular jacket.
- A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy
- The Book Smugglers
- Fantasy Matters
- Book Nut
- Heavy Medal
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- A star from Kirkus
- Good news for fans. The sequel, Ghoulish Song, is already scheduled to be released next year. Happiness all around.
- Make one of the masks from the book.