Review: Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

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A brave girl flees a ghoul while trying to save her town in this lively, fast-paced companion to National Book Award winner Goblin Secrets. 

Kaile lives in Zombay, an astonishing city where goblins walk the streets and witches work their charms and curses. Kaile wants to be a musician and is delighted when a goblin gives her a flute carved out of bone. But the flute’s single, mournful song has a dangerous consequence: It separates Kaile and her shadow. Anyone without a shadow is considered dead, and despite Kaile’s protests that she’s alive and breathing, her family forces her to leave so she can’t haunt their home. 

Kaile and her shadow soon learn that the troublesome flute is tied to a terrifying ghoul made from the bones of those who drowned in the Zombay River. With the ghoul chasing her and the river threatening to flood, Kaile has an important role to play in keeping Zombay safe. Will Kaile and her shadow be able to learn the right tune in time? 

Set in the delightful and dangerous world of Goblin Secrets, Ghoulish Song is a gripping adventure laced with humor and mystery from National Book Award–winning author William Alexander.

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William Alexander’s Ghoulish Song is a short read and an adventurous, magical tale. Though technically the companion to Goblin Secrets, in which readers are first introduced to the city of Zombay, it isn’t necessary to read this previous offering to enjoy Kaile’s story.

Kaile dreams of being a musician and following in the steps of her grandfather, who recently passed away. In Zombay, music is magic that musicians use to protect the city and its inhabitants. Kaile often refers to stories and advice her grandfather shared, which serves to give the reader an understanding of Kaile’s devotion to her grandfather as well as an understanding of the power of music.

Music ties knots, and unties them, he had told Kaile. Think about a lullaby, one that ties up the world to make it a safe place for sleeping. It doesn’t just convince the child – it convinces the world. Think about a funeral song. It can untie the string we use to hold our grief and let it all spill out. The same song, the very same song, can tie us back together again after we’ve spilled out.– Pg 32-33 of arc

Kaile tries to be good and follow the direction of her mother, who she feels cares more about her bakery and her position as the best baker in town than about Kaile, but she can’t seem to say no when it comes to the magic of music, even when she knows she should. After an unfortunate incident with a goblin troupe, Kaile comes into possession of a flute made of bone, which, when played, separates her shadow from her feet, and sets into motion the events of the novel.

One of my favorite aspects of Ghoulish Song was Kaile’s commentary regarding the other characters, like her brother, Snotfish. These descriptions feel realistic. Though she lives in the magical city of Zombay, she still has to deal with her annoying little brother. 

“Doctor Boggs hadn’t paid a visit to Broken Wall since the Snotfish broke his leg – again – by doing exactly the same thing he had been doing the first time he had broken his leg. He fell from a crate stacked on top of another crate, which he had stacked on a table in the public room. He had been tying several lengths of twine to the rafters. Kaile didn’t know why the Snotfish had been tying twine to the rafters, and she had never asked. Either he wouldn’t answer, or else he would for hours and hours, and either way she would regret asking.” – Pg 47 of arc

Kaile’s shadow becomes a central character as well. Like Kaile in some ways, yet a definite individual, Shadow’s observations and dialogue offer depth and maturity Kaile has yet to achieve. In essence, Shadow completes Kaile and possesses half of the qualities that ultimately allow her to defeat the ghoul that’s bent on destroying Zombay.

“‘Tell me why you left,’ Kaile said. ‘Tell me why you aren’t attached to my feet anymore.’ 

I heard music, the shadow said. It was beautiful and wrenching. It unmoored me. It cut me away from you. I huddled in our room while so many other people came in. Then they all left, and you left with the lantern. You left me almost in the dark. I followed. The only thing I know how to do is follow you. I don’t want to. You never noticed me when you dragged me across the ground while walking. You never noticed when someone else stepped on my face. I don’t want to be anywhere near you. But near you is the only place I know.” – Pg 55-56 of arc 

Ghoulish Song is creative with beautiful writing. I think young readers will identify with Kaile while enjoying the delightful world Alexander has created.

Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 2013, Hardcover, ISBN: 9781442427297, 176 pages.

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