There are books that make you feel good for having read them. Not virtuous or well-behaved, but good. More whole-hearted, more brave, more likely to look at a stranger and see the fine face beneath the mask of their unfamiliarity. Goblin Secrets, William Alexander’s debut novel, is just such a book. It is an adventure story with a heart of gold, a fantasy dressed in the ragtag garments of fairytales, clockwork, and theater, but for all its disparate curiosities, it is also a story that feels exactly right.
Rownie is an orphan in the city of Zombay. He lives with a witch named Graba who carries behind her the shadow of that other famous, child-collecting witch, Baba Yaga. Rownie used to have an older brother named Rowan, but Rowan is gone. Vanished, taken, disappeared. It is up to Rownie to find him, and Goblin Secrets starts out as the story of that search, but expands along the way until the search for family also becomes the search for an immense and very strange magic that will save the city and everyone living inside it. The entire book billows and shifts in the same way. Sometimes it races along the comfortable lines of a young person’s fantasy, and then swivels around a corner to become something much odder, larger, and more clear. Clockwork bears itself with grace when powered with the hearts of living creatures. Masks both hide and overwhelm the person who wields them. There are characters who feel familiar, as if you’ve met a version of them before in some other story, but as you spend more time with them, you realize they aren’t familiar at all. They’re distinct, particular, and memorable.
There are so many things about this novel that play right into my personal quirks of affection. There are masks and theater and a traveling band of goblin actors. There are laws against pretending to be someone else and there are people who recognize the importance of such a transformation, and so do it anyway. It is an immensely likeable book. And I don’t mean that in a bland or non-committal way. It is likeable in the way that the great Lloyd Alexander’s books have always been likeable to me. Welcoming and refreshing because you imagine that at the heart of the story, no matter how dark or bizarre it might become, is the conviction that there are so many things in the world that are worth being excited about and believing in.
Goblin Secrets is fun. It is also unusual, unsettling, and written with a very spirited grace. It is aimed at that peculiar beast called the “middle grade reader,” but it is the kind of book that will read well at any age. Because it will make you feel good while you’re reading it and, most likely, for quite some time after.