City of Song and Stories – Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

gholishGhoulish Song is a companion novel to William Alexander’s exemplary children’s story, Goblin Secrets. I say companion, for it is not a sequel. The events of the two books run concurrently.

In Goblin Secrets, the focus of the tale was acting. Here it is music. After being given a flute by a Goblin troupe (the same that featured in Goblin Secrets), Kaile the baker’s daughter plays a tune on it. A small event with strong repercussions. After finishing the tune, Kaile discovers her shadow has been severed. It’s still there but is now a living, speaking moving entity with a mind of its own and a fear of the dark. To make matters worse, in Zombay, tradition holds that those without shadows are freshly deceased. Unquiet ghouls unwilling to make the journey into the next life. Kaile’s family and friends shun her, casting her out, ignoring her existence, but it turns out the penalty for bring dead could be a whole lot worse.

As in Goblin Secrets there are two tales here. There is the quest, in both books, the desperate search for a reunion but beyond that there is the wider story of the river and the arrival of the floods. In both cases the fate of the city is bound up with the arts. The theatre in Secrets and music in Song.

This book isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but as I think there is a strong case for making Goblin Secrets my all time favourite children’s book, this is not wholly unexpected. I found the driving force behind the story is less compelling. There is no scary Graba hunting Kalie down and the quest to track down her shadow is less emotionally engaging than the hunt for Rownie’s brother. The fact that Kaile’s family and friends think she’s dead, when she clearly isn’t, felt arbitrary and therefore less intense. The comparative lack of goblins was also a bit of a blow.

That’s not to say there isn’t much to love about the book. I love the idea that in a city countless stories are unfolding. It’s an idea often forgotten in children’s stories. Invariably there is only one story; everything else is everyday life. There is no background to the settings and children’s tales can be exciting but two-dimensional. Not so Zombay. The band of musicians Kaile falls in with are a great group of characters and there is also the reliquary, which, despite being hard to say when reading aloud, is one of the creepiest and well imagined places in children’s fiction.

In Zombay and its arts, William Alexander has created a wonderful setting for his stories. Once again his prose sparkles, shines, smells and bustles. The city is alive, with history and tradition and is filled with fascinating people and customs. Alexander’s pair of Zombay novels are a cut above what else is out there for children aged 8+ and I can’t wait to see what story comes our way next. It’s impossible not to speculate; saving the world through interpretive dance?

Many thanks to the Sam and the team at Much in Little/Constable and Robinson for sending me a copy of this book


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