A goblin stepped onstage.
Rownie stared. He had never seen one of the Changed before. This one was completely bald, and taller than Rownie thought goblins could get. His sharp ear-tips stuck out sideways from his head, and his eyes were large and flecked with silver and brown. His skin was green; the deep green of thick moss and riverweed. His clothes were patched together from fabric of all different colors.
The goblin bowed. He set two lanterns at both corners of the stage, and then stood in the center. he held several thin clubs in one hand. He watched the audience in a cruel and curious way, the way molekeys watch beetles before they pull off their wings and legs.
Rownie felt like he should be hiding behind something. When the goblin moved, finally, throwing the clubs in the air with a snap of both sleeves, Rownie flinched. (p. 37 e-book, Act I, Scene IV)
I have struggled for hours trying to think of how best to approach writing a review commentary on William Alexander's National Book Award-nominated Goblin Secrets. It is a different sort of book from the other finalists, not just because it is the only fantasy, but because its structure differs in key regards from the others. Goblin Secrets is not a "poor" book, but it is not necessarily a work that will immediately captivate a reader and perhaps within that lies the crux of my quandary regarding how to approach discussing it.
Goblin Secrets utilizes a three act, multi-scene alternative to traditional chapters. There are additional drama elements that can be detected within the prose: the masks that some of the characters sport, the way in which the titular goblins (who are the only ones permitted to perform on stage) act, both in dialogue and in movement, and the rise and fall of dramatic action from the introduction to the denouement. This approach does enliven matters to a degree, as there is a greater sense of "movement" within these scenes, as characters such as the young orphaned Rownie, in search for his older brother Rowan (who disappeared suddenly after performing in an illegal secret play), progress through the city of Zombay.
In addition to the goblins, the fantastical elements include an apparent magical connection between the masks and certain prophesied events related to the city's nearby river. Much of the narrative is devoted to exploring these mysterious connections, which Alexander does deftly, with vividly-told (acted?) scenes that move from act to act with rare longeurs. Usually, these elements, when done as well as Alexander does in this novel, denote a satisfying read, yet oddly this was not my experience while reading Goblin Secrets.
There is a lot that is going on within the narrative and "behind the scenes." Almost too much, as there were times that it seemed that there was too little exposition to explain what all was transpiring. Furthermore, the Act/Scene structure is a bit convoluted at times. While it does generally adhere to the introduction/rising action–climax–falling action/resolution of three-act plays, in novel form the action felt a bit too unbalanced toward the former "act," with the latter two feeling less defined and vital as the first.
The characterizations for the most part fall along certain archetypes: the innocent orphan waif (Rownie), the mysterious lost brother (Rowan), the evil stepmother-like figure (the witch Graba) and the fulcrum-occupying goblin actors. Yet what Alexander does well is to imbue these characters with just enough distinctive traits as to make them feel life-like while still leaving just enough "space" for readers to imagine themselves (or others they know) in certain roles. The masks are both figurative and literal in the tale and the switching of them does change character perspectives a bit, sometimes leading to bits that were confusing upon a first read.
Goblin Secrets is a work that frustrated me when I read it, particularly the first time a few weeks ago. It contains a lot of elements that I typically enjoy in a fantasy (unique setting, different narrative structure, decent characterizations), but it just did not mesh well here. There was little "wonder" by novel's end, just a wish that there had been. Compared to the other fictions on the Young People's Literature shortlist, Goblin Secrets is perhaps the most flawed and least-realized. It is a decent book, perhaps one that readers 10-14 might enjoy more than I did, but it pales in comparison to the other finalists.