Goblin Secrets is geared a bit younger than my usual fare, but I'm bound & determined to read all of the 2012 National Book Award Finalists this year, so here we go.
In the city of Zombay, acting is illegal and punishable by law. Playing roles and wearing masks, after all, is a form of lying. It isn't right to pretend to be something you aren't... unless you're a goblin. Goblins aren't true citizens of Zombay, and so they aren't forced to comply with its rules.
Young Rownie—his friend Vass claims he's eight, though he suspects he's closer to ten—lives, along with a large group of orphans and castoffs, with a witch. She doesn't provide affection—or even food—but she does provide shelter and occasional work. Her habit of moving her house without informing her "grandchildren" where or when she's going adds an element of constant uncertainty to their lives, but they take what they can get.
Rownie, like his older brother Rowan before him—who, incidentally, has been missing for a few months now—is fascinated by the theater. So when he has a chance to see a show, he takes it: and in so doing, discovers that he's not the only one who's been searching for his brother all of this time... and that Rowan's disappearance may have much more dire and broad-reaching consequences than he could have ever imagined.
Interesting change up on the cover art, eh? The brown one is the newer one, and looks more modern, yes... but generically so. The older one looks kind of generic to me as well, but '70s generic, which makes it more of a stand-out now. Which is weird. Ultimately, I find the new one more compelling—it's more crisp and conveys more of a sense of urgency and adventure—though the original is more true to the old-fashioned feel of the storytelling style.
Because Goblin Secrets does feel, very much, like a throwback. There's a sense of adventure, but also a real-life feel, even though it is very much set in a fantasy world. The world isn't explained in much depth—Big Epic Worldbuilding isn't a necessity here—but there are a lot of super-fun details about the city (like how the statue of the Mayor is given a new head every time someone new comes into power), and there's loads of potential for other areas and aspects of the city to be explored in further books.
The combination of steampunky clockwork technology mixes well with the sense of real magic—my favorite mix of the two was in Graba, a Baba Yaga-ish witch who has clockwork chicken legs (as well as the aforementioned moving house)—and as in a lot of old-school children's fantasy, there are genuinely dark and scary bits as well as moments of joy and wonder. The power of the theater and of the masks we wear—both literal and metaphorical—is a running theme, which is a cool one, but any possibility of that theme getting too TOO (<--read: New Age Sappy) is completely counteracted by the magical workings of the masks and AN EPIC BATTLE THAT INVOLVES THE MASKS THEMSELVES.
At moments, I was reminded of Diana Wynne Jones—and I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a Miyazaki film adaptation—but while it shares her storytelling technique of throwing a huge number of elements into the air and letting them fall into place in a logical and neat manner, Goblin Secrets doesn't share the things I will always love most about Our Lady Diana: the heart and the humor*. It's ironic that a story that deals—again, both literally and metaphorically—with stolen hearts would leave me feeling emotionally untouched, but here we are.
Entertaining stuff, with lots and lots of strengths... but for me, lacking in those crucial elements. Everyone's different, though, so I'm curious to hear from you on this: especially if you feel differently.
*There are moments of understated humor, yes, but mostly... not so much.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book is a 2012 National Book Award finalist.