The Plot: Rownie is one of “grandchildren” of the witch, Graba, children she’s collected to run her errands. His mother is dead; his older brother, Rowan, brought Rownie to Graba knowing the shelter she offered was better than nothing. Now Rowan is missing, and Rownie is looking everywhere for him.
Rowan was an actor, something illegal in the town of Zombay. When Rownie finds an acting troupe made up of goblins, he finds out that they knew Rowan. Can the goblins help him find Rowan? What causes a human to change into a goblin? And will Graba let Rownie go?
The Good: One of the good things about reading the National Book Award Finalists after they’ve been announced is that I read from a place of, “why this book? what made this special?” It also makes me read outside my “same old, same old.” The bulk of my reading is usually young adult, so it was nice to be pushed into reading a middle grade book for younger readers.
With Goblin Secrets, quite a few things made my list for “why.”
There is the world building in Goblin Secrets: and what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.
The magic — this is a magic both real and magic created by belief. Yes, when Rownie puts on a mask he feels different and acts different and there is power. But it’s not perfect power: at one point, Rownie loses that magic when being pursued: “the charm was broken. The Grubs had broken it with a look and a smirk, without even trying.” What at first seems to be just a quirk in a fairy tale (acting is outlawed) turns out to be have more serious and sinister meaning. Not everything is explained; it’s Rownie’s world, and things are the way they are.
And Rownie: finally, Rownie, who Gaba says is eight but Rownie himself is sure he is closer to ten. So young, to be practically on his own. Living with Graba means a roof over his head, and errands to run, but it doesn’t mean food or comfort. His brother was all Rownie. The adventures he goes on once he meets up with the goblins: the risks of illegal acting, hiding from Graba, running from her “Grubs” (her “grandchildren”), saving the city of Zombay. I can easily picture him running through the streets as his oversized coat billows out behind him.
I said “finally” and I lied. As I put this review aside for a few days, different parts of the book came back to me. The other characters, from Rownie’s “sister” Vass who is being taught to be a witch by a witch jealous of any competition; and the goblins themselves, full of secrets and knowledge: Patch, Semele, Essa, Thomas, Nonny. The plays and the masks; the town and the river. A real ending, not a start of a trilogy. An examination of family: brothers Rowan and Rownie; Graba’s “grandchildren”; the goblins.