Settings are sometimes the best and most memorable characters of a story, and of returning to YA literature in particular; revisiting Narnia is like seeing an old friend, and I won’t pretend not to have chosen a grad school based on its resemblance to Hogwarts. Ghoulish Song is William Alexander’s second book set in the city of Zombay, and though I’ve not read its sister novel, the National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets, this fantastical port city—noisy and wafting with the smell of fresh bread—has secured its place on my map of fantastical places. Alexander paints a picture so vivid, readers can’t help but cheer on his protagonist as she fights for her home.
Kaile’s first quest, however, is to save her mother.
Zombay, like many fantastical cities, is rooted in tradition. Every year, the Guard takes a turn around the city to inspect each bakery, to ensure for quality control; if the bread isn’t perfect, the baker is thrown into a hanging cage by the docks and pelted with old food and insults. Protagonist Kaile’s mother, though, is the best baker in the city, by far; she has never ended up in the cage, and only a monumental mistake—or a series of them, as the case may be—could break her record. First, Kaile’s bratty little brother, Snotfish, accidentally destroys the flute her grandfather gave her before he died. Then, Kaile, perpetually drawn toward the music her grandfather used to make, lets a troupe of goblins into the bakery to perform. When her mother kicks them out, Kaile gives them the bakery’s best bread in apology, and receives an odd sort of flute made from bone in return—the perfect gift after her loss earlier in the day.
Kaile doesn’t find out right away that her actions have cost her mother the inspection—that, unfortunately, comes later. Instead, much more is put at stake. When she plays the goblin’s bone flute, Kaile’s shadow escapes from her body, a sign, according to her family, that she is dead and well on her way to becoming a ghoul. She is kicked out of her home, but not before she witnesses her own funeral.
The song Kaile plays, as one can tell from the book’s title, is the crux of the story. Music itself, in fact, is the crux, along with its unique ability to inspire empathy and creation. Kaile’s grandfather, we learn, worked with an elite team of musicians to keep Zombay’s perpetual waters at bay, to upkeep the bridge that protects the people from the water’s destructive force. Music also propels the city’s gearworked guards, protects Kaile when she is attacked by a vengeful ghoul made of old bones, lifts her spirits when she grieves, and gives her a sense of purpose that drives her beyond her own selfish goal of returning her shadow. The novel’s only glaring flaw is the sluggishness with which this power is introduced. Kaile knows full well the amazing task her grandfather undertook in his lifetime, and she still, foolishly, played a song powerful enough to remove her shadow. The reader only becomes aware of this power—and Kaile’s childish understanding of it—gradually.
Kaile’s full understanding of music, and the role of her shadow (now called Shade) in its making, is sidetracked by her quest to return home. Her adventure takes her to the goblin that gifted her the flute, to the man that crafted it, to the island where the bone originated. Throughout her journey, Shade is her only consistent companion. Despite being detached, the shadow girl is terrified of being lost in crowds of other shadows, of being stepped on, of disappearing into darkness. Kaile learns to keep her lantern lit throughout the night, and even seems to doubt the ethics of returning Shade to herself when Shade so obviously despises being connected to and ignored by Kaile.
When the floodwaters threaten Zombay, all of Kaile’s lessons from the past few days are put to the test—music, her shadow, and her consideration of others are all on the line. Not only does her mother hang in a cage above the tumultuous river, but it is she who put her there during the inspection. Not only does Kaile fail the test that would allow her to join the bridge musicians and save the city, but she fails because, according to the Master musician, she cannot hear her shadow—who she detached with her own foolishness. Kaile is forced to learn from her mistakes much more quickly than the average child, and has far more lives in her hands, including her own.
Music and empathy are Kaile’s ultimate lessons, and they are the tools she uses to save the city. They are, of course, entangled with one another; one cannot use music as a sort of magic without first understanding the needs of others— whether human, ghoul, or shadow. Alexander doesn’t make his message too terribly heavy-handed, though, as many YA authors are apt to do; he trusts his reader, no matter their age. That being said, I was very pleased to see the theme of empathy discussed in a book for children, especially as a means to deal with tragedy (how, after all, are kids to deal with the fall-out of school shootings, or witnessing the Boston Marathon?). It’s all very “Mr. Rogers,” for sure, but lets not forget that Mr. Rogers was a badass that took the emotional health of children very seriously. Alexander is serious as well, but not so much that his book is not touched by adventure or whimsy in the form of Zombay—where music is magic, the city guard is run like clockwork, and goblins perform on street corners.
Ghoulish Song is a fun and exciting YA novel. You do not have to read Goblin Secrets in order to understand Zombay or its inhabitants, but you will certainly want to once you’re finished. I certainly did.
Ghoulish Song is published by Margaret K. McElderry books. It is available now.
Emily Nordling likes good books, bad TV, and superior tea