The story takes place in a strange and mysterious place called Zombay. It is divided into two parts --- Northside and Southside. The streets of Northside are laid out in straight lines that intersect and cross each other at right angles, almost with military precision. Its buildings are also straight and precise. Southside’s streets twist and turn on each other in a maze of tangles and confusion. The streets are lined with houses and buildings that lean every which way. The city is inhabited by humans, witches and goblins; strange creatures like dust fish (fish that swim in dust) and guzzards (flightless birds that scavenge for food); and mechanical, gear-driven gizmos, some of which are useful and some of which aren’t. Zombay also a city where coal is not mined from the ground and is never used by the people in Southside. Coal takes on a significance of its own in this story.
"William Alexander introduces us to not only a whole new world of fantasy and adventure but also a whole new way of writing in this genre."
Rownie lives in the Southside, where he shares a shack with Graba (known as “grandmother”), who is a witch. He is the youngest in a house full of children that Graba has taken in, or “collected,” over the years. They are known as Grubs and are expected to do her bidding.
Even though Rownie is surrounded by his “family,” he wants one thing: to find his real long-lost brother, Rowan. Rowan disappeared after acting in a secret play --- acting is forbidden within the city limits, as no human is permitted to wear a mask and pretend to be something or someone they are not. Goblins, however, are allowed to act and perform plays because they are no longer human; they are the “Changed”.
When Rownie meets a troupe of traveling goblins, he is fascinated by their use of masks and words and wants to learn their craft. He is taken into their world where he is given not only the promise of being an actor, but also the hope the goblins will help him find Rowan. They knew him and are curious about his disappearance. During his time with the goblins, Rownie discovers the real power of masks.
However, when Rownie joins forces with the goblins, he must be constantly on the lookout for Graba and her Grubs. Graba considers her children to be her possessions. They cannot leave without her permission. She has magical ways and means of keeping track of all her children at all times. But Graba is not the only villain in the story. Rownie meets the Lord Mayor of Zombay. Let’s just say he does not have the city’s best interests at heart.
And, Rownie learns that a long-predicted flood will soon wipe out half the city, the Southside half. Can Rownie do anything to prevent this? Can he find his brother? Will he learn the Goblins’ secrets? You’ll have to read the book yourself to find the answers to these questions.
Be prepared, though. I’ve read a lot of children’s fantasy stories and this one was unlike any I had read before. William Alexander introduces us to not only a whole new world of fantasy and adventure but also a whole new way of writing in this genre. His word description, or “word building” as one reviewer put it, is unique. If you like fantasy, mystery and adventure, this is one book you will definitely want to read.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on November 9, 2012