Book website can be found here
Rownie, who has no name of his own, only the diminutive of his brother's name, Rowan, lives with other children in the cottage owned by Graba, a grandmother figure who uses the kids to do her errands in Zombay. Rownie's Zombay is a steampunk dystopia where most of the characters have clockwork parts. Graba's got mechanical bird legs, which is fitting, considering her ability to commune with and control pigeons.
This is a bleak world. Young Rownie's brother has disappeared and plenty of people are looking for him. Their parents died when they were very young and Rownie tosses pebbles into the river from the bridge to say hello to the mom he doesn't remember, always on the lookout for his absent brother.
Graba is a witch who controls the children in her care. Although, I am using the word "care" extremely loosely. There is not much care given. The kids have beds of straw to sleep in, but that's about it. Graba gives them jobs to do and they are on their own for food, a commodity they never seem to get enough of. One day, after the other children are sent off to do Graba's bidding in the city, Rownie is asked to stay behind. He winds up Graba's legs and discovers that one joint has seized up. Graba sends him to get some oil. On his way to the machinist's shop he hears that a goblin theater troupe has come into town and that they posted up signs about a show that evening. Rownie lies to the machinist and, instead of getting Graba's oil, he takes two copper coins, the price of a ticket to the goblin play and runs off to see the show.
For a town filled with such strange characters, the people of Zombay are very superstitious. It's against the law to wear a mask or put on a show, where anyone pretends to be anyone else. There are loads of rumors and old wives' tales about the goblins. When Rownie goes to the show, he volunteers to be a part of it and really enjoys the chance to pretend to be someone else. A portion of the crowd is concerned for a small boy in the power of goblins, but the rest are hoping things go horribly wrong and/or Rownie gets arrested for being unchanged and acting.
When Rownie is returned to Graba, she doesn't seem as concerned about his stealing the two coins and not completing her errand as he imagined. She seems concerned that he's being turned into a goblin. While she cooks up a spell to keep him from changing, he uses the opportunity when her attention is diverted to run away. From there he takes up with the goblins and learns a great deal about himself, his brother, the fate of his town and the goblins who take him in.
Apparently, this is the first book in a series. I am always so disappointed when I find that out. This book was an enjoyable little read. Its intended audience is middle graders and I suspect they will get a lot more from it than I did. However, I think the ending was sufficient and I'm not really sure how much time I'd be interested in spending in this really really depressing world. Rownie's life is not rosy, nor is his future, or anyone else's, for that matter. He does some good, has some pretty rotten realities thrust upon him and finds a place where he truly belongs. The end. Seriously, the book ended with wrap ups of all the pertinent plot points.
I'm not sorry I read the book, but I can assure you that I will not be checking back in with Rownie and his friends and enemies in Zombay. For those of you interested in the book and, I certainly do recommend checking it out, or those of you with middle grade readers, here's a video of the author reading from the book. Enjoy!