Take one boy without a name who may or may not be a slave. Add a girl named Alice who wants to be a sage but can’t seem to break into the smart boys’ club and a girl named Alice who happens to be a princess. Mix in a goblin with fondness for puzzles, a mind-controlled dragon who does his hunting by name, and a nefarious Duke scheming to overthrow a kingdom, and you’ve got all the ingredients for The Goblin’s Puzzle, a really clever middle grades fantasy that raises questions about slavery and women’s rights, absolute versus relative truth, heroism, and more.
The book starts with the boy, a slave without a name, who—through a series of unfortunate events—finds himself in possession of an-almost-all-knowing-but-certainly-not-telling goblin and in pursuit of Just Alice, who’s been captured by a dragon who’s confused her with the princess because they have the same name. But rescuing Just Alice—who desperately wants the chance to prove that she’s as wise as any sage her age—is just the beginning of the boy’s adventures, which take him across a kingdom on the brink of war and which, the goblin implies, will lead him to the truth of his origins and the discovery that he is not really a slave after all.
This book has a Roald Dahl/Lemony Snicket irreverence and a twisty-turny plot that make it perfect for a readaloud. (I also kept finding parallels to The Horse and His Boy, though the books are completely different.) I could quibble that Princess Alice deserves a more nuanced character development (she does) and that the villainous duke is a bit two-dimensional (he is), but these are small issues in an otherwise excellent book. Add this one to your library list.
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