Reviews: Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

Title: In Ghoulish Song

Author: William Alexander      

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Pub Date: March 2013          ISBN13: 9781442427297    

Recommended for grades 4 and up.

It’s always a pleasure to discover a fresh new voice in children’s fiction–in my case it’s especially delightful when it’s a new voice in fantasy.  There’s a lot of fantasy out there, and a lot of it takes the same story ideas, the same tropes and cliches and it makes for a lot of stories that can’t get me excited  or interested because I’ve heard them already.  So when authors like William Alexander come along and throw me into their vividly imagined urban landscape and leave me treading water as they plunge ahead into a the story at hand–it’s a delicious treat that leaves me hungry for more.

Last year William Alexander’s debut title, Goblin Secrets  won the National Book Award, a well deserved award in my opinion.  This year we have another story from him set in the same city of Zombay, but not an actual sequel to the last book.   Ghoulish Song is the story of haunting music,  absent shadows,  a dangerous river, and the restless dead.

The restless dead (or undead) have been popular as of late.  Zombies, vampires, and the things that hunt them make for well watched TV series and movies.  And like any popular subject matter, the undead have slowly and stealthily infiltrated children’s fiction.   I admit, I’m not particularly excited by the trend.  I think vampires have been done to death (hmm . . . can a vampire be killed by the written word?) and zombies are just not . . . inspiring.  So it’s darned impressive that William Alexander’s story manages to delight me despite the undead lurking within.

The other amazing thing about this book?  It’s short.  Rare are the middle grade fantasy novels that come in under 250 pages.   With authors like Rick Riordan and J. K. Rowling delivering  huge door stopper sized volumes to eager readers, it seems that publishers and authors have gotten the idea that more is better.  So this slim fantasy story comes as a surprise in the wake of so many well padded tales.   Turns out, the story is exactly as long as it needs to be–and I think the author and the publisher deserve credit in keeping it that way.

Welcome back to Zombay. An astonishingly different  kind of adventure in a vividly realized city of magic, machine and menace.      Other than a brief cameo by one or two minor characters from Goblin Secrets, the characters are all new.  To the best of my knowledge, this kind of story, where the fantasy world itself is the consistent detail but the characters change entirely, is rare.  Even in adult fantasy writing, the only author who comes to mind is Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series.  (if you can think of others please chime in!)

Mr. Alexander manages to once again deliver, if on a briefer scale than his earlier work.  Kaile is the daughter of a baker who yearns to follow in the footsteps of her musical grandfather.  A goblin’s gift of a mysterious bone flute turns Kaile’s life topsy turvy  when its enchanted song splits the girl and her shadow.  Now her family believes she is dead (since only dead things have no shadow) and Kaile is cast out of her own home and life, left to fend for herself in the city.  If Kaile can master the magic of the bone flute, perhaps she can restore her shadow,  but mastery may not come so easily!  An adventure tale set in a powerfully imagined and dangerous world– this is urban fantasy in the truest sense.

Despite its brevity, this particular story will appeal to the sophisticated reader with its rich landscape, varied characters and musical story arc.   Fans of otherworldly fantasy will be a ready made audience, especially if they are looking for something new.  And our protagonist, Kaile,  who often acts before she thinks, is a character that reader’s can easily identify with and understand her plight.  While reluctant readers may be drawn to its length, they may find it less accessible than they expected.   Readers who loved the first book will definitely want to revisit, but this is a stand-alone that can be read without Goblin Secrets.  And unlike the first book, this one has a great cover!  So relieved to that after the original book’s cover last year.

While it has some fascinating elements, the overall image is hard to make out and doesn’t convey the type of story as well as it might.

I can only hope Mr. Alexander has more stories to share in the years to come!

Other books that fans of Ghoulish Song might also enjoy:

The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody (Knopf, 2011)

The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

The Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner (Delacorte, 2010)

Visit the author at and

Happy Reading!

About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 26, 2013, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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