I had this in mind when reading Goblin Secrets and as I expected, some elements are for the amusement of children only. Whether this is a positive or negative thing is beyond me to conclude at this point (maybe in a hundred years?).
Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
Genre: Fantasy / Steampunk(ish) / Coming of age
A boy named Rownie tries to find his missing brother, while evading a witch named Graba and the local authorities of the city of Zombay. Thanks to the help of some friendly goblins, he discovers the hidden power of masks, which in the end helps him grow as a person.
What didn't work for me:
I mentioned that some aspects of this novel are for children alone to enjoy. One of those is the world building. The city of Zombay reminded me so much of a theme park, that it convinced me that it was created to feel that way because kids love theme parks. And like a theme park, I just don't see it functioning as a real city in the world.
It is different than say, the Shire, which Tolkien wrote to feel like a place that was once there and you might find its ruins if you looked for them. Zombay is too much the typical fantasy town (a poor community segregated from an entitled community) for me to see it as more than that.
It was also tough for me to enjoy one of the book's central symbols: The mask. It's so overused that it's almost a cliche. Granted, Mr. Alexander adds a flair of originality to it, but it is piled on top of things we have seen before about masks; we all wear a mask; we hide behind masks; sometimes the mask becomes the person.
I was also surprised at how much I didn't empathize with the protagonist. Rownie just did not appeal to me; he is sooooooooo nondescript. Is he intentionally that way so kids could easily put themselves in his place (like wearing a mask)? I could not make up my mind about that.
What worked for me:
The climax was a little fast, but worthwhile. Mr. Alexander does a very interesting thing with his masks that was dramatic and touching.
He also follows through on his theater theme all the way to the end of the novel. That mask symbol I wasn't cool with works well in this sense. The theater element to the plot also adds to it (although it is limited to just the theater and not other performing arts or other arts in general). And the chapter headings as "scenes" and the book-part numbers as "acts" is clever, but mostly superficial. Still it's all thematically relevant.
The book was given a National Book Award.
I would say it ranks as a decent, though simple, read. As far as juvenile fiction goes, I've seen more complex and rewarding, like The Hobbit and The Giver. To be fair though, this era hasn't produced the most complex books (The Hobbit is more complex than 99% of all the books published in the last ten years). And besides that, how many authors win when compared to Tolkien?
However, if I had children, I would give them this book to read. It's an excellent segue-way into more complex fiction. I also think the tone and feel of the novel would appeal to them more than it did me.
What is life without pain?