Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

howattp's review against another edition

Go to review page


Goblin Secrets draws kids into the vicarious adventures of drama and theater while exploring issues of identity and following or questioning the strictures of society, all while staunchly not talking down to the younger readers.

mariahistryingtoread's review against another edition

Go to review page


This was a pretty average read. I liked it well enough. It just wasn't notable.

The best part about it was the worldbuilding. The divide between the goblins and humans, the regulations made by the Mayor, the body modifications, and the magical system all created this really immersive atmosphere. It wasn't the best I've ever read, but it certainly did draw me in. And more than that I could tell that the author wanted it to make sense and took pains to make sure it flowed together. I appreciate when an author has a clear vision that they want to execute rather than play it fast and loose to get to the parts they actually want to write.

But, Rownie was a huge drag. He didn't have much personality other than 'Rowan's little brother'. There were times when William Alexander tried to add little sarcastic or mischievous quips, but it never felt genuine. It didn't run deep enough to make it a legitimate facet of his character. A sarcastic boy would always be sarcastic not just when it was his regularly scheduled time for a (not so) funny comment. There were so many times that the book would say 'thousands of questions flew through Rownie's mind' only for Rownie to ask One question or none at all. He barely commented on events. He didn't ever complain. He was so well mannered it was actually annoying.

Every other character was more interesting than him. I wanted to hear more about the goblins' struggles in a world that despises them for merely existing. I wanted to know more about how each goblin came to join the troupe. Heck, even Rowan who we only got to know through the occasional flashback sounded like he would have made a more compelling protagonist.

I also don't see what made him so special that the goblins would want him for their troupe. Thomas makes it clear he was sought out originally for information on Rowan. But, Rowan has not been in contacted with Rownie and he also hasn't shared any mysterious warnings that will eventually make sense as the story unfolds. Nor does Rownie have any insight into Rowan's mind that would come in handy.

Thomas also says that Rownie has a bit of talent for acting. But, then Rownie is rendered incapable of acting almost immediately because his adopted grandmother has cursed the troupe as punishment for Rownie escaping her household.

So basically he's totally useless. I understand that the goblins are actually kind and as such, have a bit of a soft spot for Rownie. However narratively it doesn't fly.

Alexander has hooked the entire progression of the novel on Rownie rather than having Rownie react to the circumstances around him. So the book stalls. The troupe doesn't put on shows or actively look for Rowan. They sort of just plod on with Rownie tagging ineffectually behind them.

The lack of actual events occurring means there can't be any suspense either. The floods apparently are coming posthaste yet there's no urgency to find Rowan. Rownie hasn't seen his supposedly beloved brother in months and even he doesn't try to force the issue.

The resolution is disappointing. All the intrigue and corruption and secrets suggested by the plot synopsis are crammed into the last few chapters making it feel rushed. I also felt misled since most of the book wasn't doing anything with its concept like the synopsis suggested it would.

Apparently this is a series which I didn't know going in because this was a random audiobook pick. This wasn't so bad that I wouldn't give the sequel a chance though. I actually think it might be better because it won't have to spend all its time setting up the pieces. Granted neither did this book, but hey I'm optimistic. If you want a simple, very quick middle grade fantasy with decent ambience and a glimmer of potential moving forward then look no further.

l1brarygirl's review against another edition

Go to review page


Unique story but not my cup of tea.

Pop Sugar’s 2016 Reading Challenge - A National Book Award winner

slowly43's review

Go to review page

adventurous dark mysterious tense slow-paced


the_fabric_of_words's review against another edition

Go to review page


This is an older book about magic in a theater run by goblins, for once depicted not as the bad guys, but as a city's protectors.

Rownie is one of the orphan children collected from the streets of Zombay by the mechanical chicken-legged witch, Graba.

When his older brother goes missing, he can't stick around with her, waiting helplessly for him to come back. Rownie escapes, knowing Graba won't stop searching for him. To avoid her many eyes in Zombay's deepest, darkest corners, he ducks into a theater production put on by goblins.

Now, in Zombay, only goblins are allowed to put on masks and act on stage. There's a reason for this -- the masks contain the magic of all the players who've put them on before, and the roles they've been used in. But the residents of Zombay have, over time, lost this knowledge and they no longer know why human children aren't allowed to wear the masks.

In fact, it's a totally made-up restriction, by a power-hungry official who wants to be the only playwright in Zombay, even if it means chasing all the goblins out and letting the city be flooded. He's cut out Rownie's brother's heart, leaving him a unthinking, unfeeling husk ripe to play the part of whatever mask is put on his face.

Graba doesn't take well to someone challenging her control over her corner of the city, however. And the goblin players aren't powerless, either. Rownie figures out a way, with his brother's lifeless husk, to save the city.

I won't spoil the ending, it was surprising. A very imaginative offering for under the tree this holiday!

Looking for more book suggestions for your 7th/8th grade classroom and students?

Visit my blog for more great middle grade book recommendations, free teaching materials and fiction writing tips:

abishop23's review against another edition

Go to review page

adventurous emotional fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No


sean67's review against another edition

Go to review page


As I was reading this I had the feeling it was something I read before, and wasn't a fan of, none the less I persisted thinking it would be better this time - I was incorrect, it was quite dull and uninvolving and did nothing for me.
William Alexander #1
Zombay #1

tcbueti's review against another edition

Go to review page


This was very original, blending steampunk details with a new take on Baba Yaga/Fagin who commands pigeons to do her bidding, goblins who have changed from people, forbidden plays and magic masks.

Rownie (little Rowan) lives with Gaba and her other orphans, running errands and surviving her almost benign neglect. His older brother Rowan is missing, and Rownie stumbles across some goblin players who know him and also want to find him. He is intrigued by their art and sense of community, so unlike Graba’s scrabbling “grandchildren”. Will they help him find Rowan? Will they get caught by the mayor’s clockwork guard? Or by the greedy Graba? Will the river flood them out?

Masks give courage?

clarkco's review against another edition

Go to review page


Very well-paced.

fit51391's review against another edition

Go to review page


Like many other reviewers, I picked up this book after it was given the National Book Award and was eager to get started with it. However, I was met with a very disappointing read. The plot has some interesting promise -- a steampunk world, goblins, theater and beautifully described masks, as well as a Baba Yaga-esque villain -- the story, setting, and characters all fell flat. While some elements of the story were compelling, including the use of interesting machinery and the imminent danger of the flooding river, many of the books story arcs felt rushed and underdeveloped.

Most disappointing of all is the protagonist, Rownie, whose search for his missing brother and efforts to gain self-confidence are brought to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. Although the plot moves with Rownie's attempts and desires to stand up to his adversaries through skills learned on the stage, Rownie never truly comes alive as a character and his role in the goblin's theater troupe seems minimal. Similarly, the goblins, who play a large role, feel one dimensional and never seem to emerge as distinct or memorable characters.

The multiple story lines and lack of exposition also make this a somewhat confusing read. The characters jump from place to place, but never make any lasting interpretations of difficult themes. Likewise, many questions, including the use of human hearts as coal, the social divisions and conflicts between Zombay's Northside and Southside, or the importance of the Changed versus the unChanged, are left frustratingly unanswered. And despite the time spent on different set pieces within the story, many of the events don't seem to have a lasting impression on the characters or tie back into the story later. The tropes and devices used in this book often lack a cohesion that would allow them to benefit the story or characters as a whole.

Overall, this book starts with the potential of a fantasy adventure, but the underdevelopment of key characters and themes, as well as an ill-paced plot lead Goblin Secrets to be an unsatisfying read.

If you are looking for a more effective book in this genre, I would suggest Neil Gaiman's [b:The Graveyard Book|2213661|The Graveyard Book|Neil Gaiman||2219449].