Sunday, July 10, 2022

Ghoulish Song

Ghoulish Song
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Kaile lives on the poorer, south side of the river the cuts the magical city of Zombay in half. Her parents run a bakery; her younger brother deserves the nickname Snotfish; and her late grandfather was one of the musicians who played every day on the Fiddleway, the bridge that links the two halves of the city. He taught her to play, and he claimed his music helped keep the bridge from falling apart. But that's the farthest thing from her mind one disastrous day when she risks her mother's displeasure, and worse, by showing kindness to a troupe of goblin minstrels. One of them thanks her by giving her a flute carved from bone, which will only let her play one tune on it; and the first time she plays it, her shadow separates from her.

I realize that whenever that happens to you or me, lighthearted hijinks ensue. But in Zombay, not having a shadow means you're dead. Despite her protests, Kaile is declared dead. Her family holds a funeral for her. She is driven out of their home. No one will look at her, talk to her, shelter her, or help her. It could be worse. In the old days, they used to cut up people suspected of being the unquiet dead, or ghouls, and bury pieces of them in separate graves. At various points in her adventures, Kaile meets one person who is willing to maroon her on a haunted island that could flood at any moment, and another who very politely tries to push her into a furnace. So, having a shadow that doesn't stick to your heels isn't as much fun as you'd expect.

Shade, as Kaile calls her shadow, can suddenly talk to her; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Kaile can suddenly hear her voice. Despite the understandable tension between them – Shade has a lot of reasons to resent being Kaile's shadow – they have to stick close to each other if they ever hope to, er, stick together again. Meanwhile, a flood is threatening to wash out the Fiddleway, and something is wrong with music on the bridge. Kaile tries out to be an official musician, but that doesn't go her way, either. Before she can save herself, she (and her shadow) will have to save her family, her city and everyone who has turned their backs on her.

I'm amazed that forgiveness isn't a more explicit theme in this book, considering that a lot rides on Kaile pulling off heroics on behalf of people who have rejected her – which is to say, pretty much everybody. But being honest with oneself is a big theme; taking responsibility for one's own faults, and not taking for granted any of the blessings in one's life. Zombay is an eerie, strange place with ghouls, goblins, men who have replaced some of their body parts with gear-work, people who trade in ghastly goods, and a river haunted by terrifying spirits that become increasingly restless as the floods draw near. Knowing, too, that the author is a descendant of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the U.S., I wonder if there's any significance in his decision to design Zombay with a wealthy Northside (north of the river) and a shabby, working-class Southside. But really, the magic seems to flow with the river itself, under the Fiddleway, along the floating market, the focal point of so many other colorful details and imagination-grabbing ideas. It's a rich place to visit, stirring up a variety of emotions and provoking bendy streams of thought.

This is a companion to the book Goblin Secrets, by the author of A Properly Unhaunted Place, A Festival of Ghosts, Ambassador and Nomad. Try not to confuse this William Alexander with a couple other authors by the same name.

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