Rownie’s search for his brother turns into an unlikely heroic quest.
Lonely, young Rownie, with his too-big coat, ventures away from the gang of orphans who belong to the BabaYaga–like witch, Graba. Graba, who seems to operate outside of any authority, sports a pair of chicken-style gearwork legs, moves her house about and is able to cast her sight and thought into those of Rownie’s orphan housemates he thinks of as Grubs. Rownie’s riverside birthplace, the city of Zombay, is occupied by the Guard—a creepy gearwork security force in service of the Lord Mayor—and menaced by both floods and less worldly terrors. The coal energy for moving the gearwork comes from the hearts of creatures: fish, for some; people, for the Lord Mayor and others. Enticed by the hope of finding his missing older brother, last seen performing illegally in a masked play, Rownie runs away with a vagabond band of players, a troupe of Tamlin, known commonly as goblins, or the Changed. Alexander’s world, blending steampunk and witchy magic, is impressively convincing and evocative in its oddities. Though highly textured, it’s tightly woven and reassuringly seamless.
The result is wryly humorous and bearably yet excitingly menacing: Even while much is left unexplained, Rownie’s triumph is both gripping and tantalizing. (Fantasy. 9-13)