Not In Kansas Anymore: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
The Captain took a step forward. Rownie shuffled back a bit, under the wagon.
"The Lord Mayor would be very interested in the whereabouts of any unChanged actor," the Captain said. "Even a child, even someone who has only worn a mask once. In exchange for such information the Lord Mayor would provide you with a special license to perform within the proper limits of the city."
"Very generous," said Thomas. We would, of course, be delighted to help the Lord Mayor with his interests."
Rownie took a breath. The old goblin wasn't about to turn him in. The Guard-boots made a precise turns and surrounded them. Rownie heard Thomas climb up into the driving seat. A gearworked mule unfolded itself at the front of the wagon. Rownie could see coal glowing red in its belly.
They use coal, he thought, horrified. The mule began to trot. Rownie's hiding place was moving, and now he had nowhere to go.
A hatch opened in the wagon floor above him. Several pairs of hands reached down, caught him and pulled him inside.
Rownie has no mother, not even his own name, just a truncated version of Rowan, his brother's name. Fleeing the harsh and wicked Graba, a Fagin-like witch with clockwork chicken feet, whose orphan charges do her bidding in exchange for a pile of rags to sleep on and an occasional supper, Rownie runs away to the inchoate city of Zombay. Seeking his older brother in a troupe of players, clearly Tamlin (goblin), Rownie is taken in and fed by these masked actors, even donning a mask himself to play a part in a performance. For this act he finds himself a marked fugitive, hunted down by the automaton soldiers, the Guard of the Lord Mayor, and only the quick wits of Tamlin leader Thomas enable his escape.
With the sharp-eyed pigeon spies of the Baba Yaga-like Graba everywhere and the city a turmoil of rumors and an overwhelming fear of the Flood, Rownie is on his own, drawn to the mystique of playacting and the kindness of the Tamlin. The goblin troupe seem to have known his brother, and Rownie's only hope is to hide out with them and try to reunite with Rowan. But as they hide in the maze of tunnels under the town clock, deep beneath the Zombay River, Rownie finds his brother, but much changed, a senseless, heartless automaton, unknowing in the path of the coming Flood. His quest seems hopeless, but Rownie leads his mindless brother into the hidden stairs under the clock tower in the hope that he can find a way to save him and the city from the oncoming waters.
William Alexander's National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. Elderry Books, 2012) is a mysteriously imaginative fantasy, part traditional folklore, part steampunk science fiction, set in its own world of clockwork soldiers and animals, steam-driven by coal, but not coal from deep in the earth, but living hearts torn from living creatures, human and otherwise. There are traces of Oliver Twist and his orphan band, a sort of evil Wizard of Oz Lord Mayor, and a cast of seemingly human characters with very little more humanity than their clockwork servants. Strangely, it is only the Tamlin, green, long-fingered, and secretive, who retain any vestige of human empathy for others, and Rownie sees no choice for himself but to join them and risk being changed to Tamlin form himself.
Constructed in acts and scenes instead of chapters, it is a strange world which William Alexander creates, through which familiar elements flicker and turn upon themselves, all of them not what is expected. But courage and human loyalty perhaps prevail in the novel's perplexing conclusion which suggests a sequel or two. Themes of appearance and reality, of what it means to be human, and the nature of free will swirl through this multifaceted story, giving the more sophisticated young adult reader much to consider.
Kirkus Reviews says "Though highly textured, it's tightly woven and reassuringly seamless. The result is wryly humorous and bearably yet excitingly menacing: Even while much is left unexplained, Rownie's triumph is both gripping and tantalizing."