Dive into Goblin Secrets, the first YA fantasy novel in years to win the National Book Award

Some of my favorite books of the past few years have been National Book Award winners from the Young People's Literature category. If you like having your heart ripped out, stomped on a few times and shoved back in your chest, you can't beat winners like Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian or Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird. Alas, they're both just regular ol' fiction. So I was excited to see that a fantasy novel had won this year.

Past authors who have won in this category with fantasy books include Ursula K. LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L'Engle. First time author William Alexander's winning middle grade novel Goblin Secrets had a lot to live up to. And, though it has occasional flashes of brilliance, the story never seems to come together in a satisfying whole.

The novel takes place in the city of Zombay (a name that far too silly, conjuring thoughts of the video game "Plants vs. Zombies" – I imagine Dr. Zomboss getting his degree at the University of Zombay). It's a city of dark secrets that are slowly revealed. The Northside of Zombay is wealthy, with streets on a grid system and ruled by a mayor who turns out to be very corrupt, in his single scene. Across the Fiddleway Bridge and the Zombay River is Southside. Southside is full of twisting streets, poverty, docks and is ruled by Graba. Graba is a Baba Yaga-esque witch – she's on clockwork bird legs, not the house! but the house still moves! – who collects orphans to run errands for her. This includes Rownie, our hero.

Recently the Mayor has passed an anti-theater / anti-mask law in Zombay and Rownie's older brother Rowan may or may not have escaped arrest from the guard. The guard all have clockwork legs that force them to march everywhere, which make it seem like they should be easy to run away from, but apparently not. The guard captain also has clockwork eyes with gears for irises, which doesn't make sense, but does let Alexander write lines about the captain's "ticking gaze," which is fun. Rownie misses his brother, though he doesn't actually seem to have gone looking for him and it's not clear how long ago he disappeared – we learn of Rowan's disappearance in flashback – but the whole thing gets going when Rownie decides to steal from Graba and sneak off to see a Goblin play.

The Goblins are not technically citizens of Zombay and get to skirt the laws about putting on plays and wearing masks and they invite Rownie to do so too. It turns out he's pretty good at acting. The goblins, who were once human but have been Changed (with a capital letter) and prefer being called Tamlins – though the book usually doesn't, even after we've been told – also hate the mayor and hated by Graba. The Tamlins make up the third leg of the somewhat odd political plot of the novel, about citizenship and gentrification and fairness and unfairness of laws.

All three groups are looking for Rowan, though it's not clear why until pretty late in the story. Also, the floods are coming. Except they've never come before, it's just something people say. Theater is magical, except also there's literally magic. Aside from clockwork there are automatons which are powered by burning coal. Except coal isn't something mined from the earth – it's made from the hearts of humans and animals. Which can be replaced by clockwork to make slaves and mindless workers. The whole novel is broken up into "Acts" and "Scenes" instead of books and chapters. Though, these designations are merely cosmetic, not structural or indicating actual scene shifts. Which I think about covers the set-up.

Alexander cannot be faulted in any way for being unimaginative or unambitious, certainly. And his writing has a lovely and often poetic feel to it. There's particularly excellent sequence toward the end of the book of a puppet show that managed to combine the thrill of the illicit, the magic of theater, a possible threat to the Tamlin and provide a healthy dose of world-building and character history. It's also the only time the plays in the novel move beyond folk tales or morality plays into something more interesting. The play itself also provides a clue for the enmity between two parties who want the same thing. Though it may have left a little too much ambiguity. Despite sequences like this the story as a whole felt continually unwieldy and confusing.

Aside from Rownie's half-hearted search for his brother – the flap copy says he goes to the Tamlin play looking for his brother, though the text makes it clear he didn't know his brother knew the Tamlins – and the political shenanigans, general enslavement of people, etc., the threat of the book is the flooding of the Zombay River. This is introduced about a third of the way into the book, immediately undercut as a threat and also sounds like "winter is coming" from Game of Thrones. It wasn't until the last third of the book that I realized this was what the book was about. This wasn't the only time I got lost in Alexander's overstuffed world – the first few times he describes "diggers" I thought they were some sort of ghost story the street kids told each other and not clockwork-hearted slaves.

Like many child protagonists in fantasy, Rownie doesn't know much about the world around him and we mostly encounter things through his eyes. With the Tamlins, this is interesting: he hears a lot of lies and bad information and is disabused of his speciesist ideas. But with other topics, it's just odd. After angering Graba, Rownie throws himself from a window and then runs for his life. In the midst of running, Alexander introduces us to another fantastical creature that lives in the dust of Southside and then Rownie considers the possibility that Graba made one of his pursuers out of pigeons. Is this Rownie's flight of fancy? Is it literally possible Graba is that powerful a witch? It's another unanswered question, like how do people Change into Tamlin? Rownie flat out asks that two of the Tamlin. One can't remember because it was too long ago, though the older one he asks just tells him she won't tell him.

While ambiguity works for something like the magic behind the masks the Tamlin and Rownie wear, outright lack of clarity and too many questions just bog down the novel. For instance, one character tells Rownie that Graba keeps him around because he has "got a little talent for wearing masks," except Graba's kept Rownie for years and only the day before had he ever tried on a mask. And his doing so made her furious. By the end you can kind of puzzle out the witch's motivations, but not how she knew that Rownie would have this talent. All of this, and more, is jammed into a mere 150 pages. By the time it was clear what was important and what was atmospheric window dressing, the book was nearly over and the climax hinged on what had seemed to be a throw-away line in Act 1, Scene 1.

Perhaps I am being overly judgmental, because this seems like a book I should love: I'm a mask collecting, theater lover myself and am a stronger believer in challenging young readers with morally complex, sometimes ambiguous stories. Many of the ideas in the novel are fresh or at least interesting twists on the familiar, but they never caused me to feel anything particular for Rownie, or his lost brother. Perhaps if the plot had been broken up over two books, allowing time for Rownie to actively search for his brother or to have a couple adventures away from Zombay, there would have been space to make the stakes and risks clearer or to examine the possible morality of various choices (perhaps some Southsiders would embrace the mayor's plan if it means getting out from under the thumb of a witch).

Though I did not love Goblin Secrets, that doesn't change the fact that it's made a pretty serious splash for a debut novel. Alexander is an author willing to take risks and he's got an impressive imagination. After winning the National Book Award, it's likely we'll be seeing more from him. With any luck, his next entries into the field will have more solid narratives to support his flights of fancy.