The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, by Chris Wooding

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This is not a pretty cover though.

This book is good. Scary good. I love it. Take this with a pinch of salt though because I first read it when I was quite young, so rereading it meant a whole lot of nostalgia. It’s absolutely amazing because Wooding has managed to stick so much into such a small book, and do it well.

To summarise: Thaniel is seventeen (prime YA protagonist age) and an orphaned wych-hunter in a steampunk London which is overrun with ‘wych-kin’, (boogie men, zombie things, ghouls, and monsters that steal babies). He’s orphaned, and lives with his hunting partner/mentor Cathaline, who is a badass. Thaniel is hunting a monster one night, when he is attacked by a beautiful girl so naturally, he takes her home and looks after her. It turns out she is the key to a massive apocalyptic plot masterminded by a shadowy cult-thing called the Fraternity (by the way, I used this name for a shadowy criminal organisation in a fanfic once), and they have to stop the apocalypse. Of course.

The thing I love most about this novel is how fleshed out everything is. For a novel not even 400 pages  long, Wooding manages to create a world as fully developed as many series. The setting of London is recognizable despite how twisted it is, and that’s brilliant. The wych-kin are numerous, and the characters freely admit there is no science or logic behind their methods of killing. This kind of uncertainty means that the stakes are high throughout the novel, and Wooding does a fantastic job of keeping this momentum up as well. This is also achieved by skipping away from the protagonists and focusing on random Londoners, so readers are able to see the full picture and the consequences, which is a great technique.

It is also very spooky. The reason I decided to re-read and review this was because of two very particular scenes which have stuck in my head for years. One, the protagonists are travelling through railway tunnels and are attacked by wolves and all other kinds of wych-kin. It’s not so much that this scene is scary, but the imagery and the character’s fear is brilliantly portrayed. The second is Rawhead and Bloodybones. These two are characters from British folklore and they eat children, and in Haunting, Rawhead stalks a woman to murder her. She thinks someone is following her, because she can hear their footsteps, but she can’t see anyone. And there’s this spooky poem.

Rawhead close behind you treads, three looks back and you’ll be dead.

But close your eyes and count to ten, and Rawhead will be gone again.

I cannot tell you how many times I have walked home alone, become convinced that someone was following me and been absolutely terrified that if I look behind me a third time, I will die. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I am a grown-ass woman. But it’s scary.

However, as much as I hate to say it, there are a few problems with this novel. The dialogue is quite stilted throughout: it’s trying to be formal and old-fashioned but it just seems like Wooding tried a little too hard. There’s also a lot of YA hero tropes in the novel, and as I was reading I felt like ticking them off a list. Orphan? check. Daddy issues? check. Supernaturally good at everything? check. Meets a beautiful girl under mysterious circumstances and then has to save her? check. There are more.

On the other hand, the other characters are decent and well thought out. Detective Carver is a good solid secondary character, and the tiny bits of his POV that we get are surprisingly funny. Alaizabel, bless her, is a mess for the first few chapters, but comes into her own and the thing that I like best about her was her resilience, and this isn’t just said, it’s shown. Despite her trauma, she steps up and does her job, and does it well. And knows she does too. Of the beggars, we have the Beggar Lord Crott, Devil-Boy Jack, and Armand. Entertaining, and only really a means to an end in the novels, and I would argue that they are caricatures rather than characters, but I like them anyway.

I have saved the best for last. Cathaline. She isn’t as well developed on the page as some of the other characters, but it’s possible to read between the lines without much effort. Cathaline is a female wych-hunter who wear trousers and has short hair in a time when exactly none of that was respectable, and she does not care. It helps her do her job. She’s a little macabre, she’s funny, and she sits with a dying woman for hours so that she won’t die alone. There’s also the fact that she is such a bamf she actually overshadows Thaniel the boy wonder a lot of the time.

The ending of the novel- well, it was both good and bad. I couldn’t remember the finale from my childhood readings of it, so I got to experience it all over again, and, well, I was disappointed. The reveal about how wych-kin came about was amazing. How they defeated the bad guys? Less so.

Overall, it’s a great book. I love it. I can overlook the problems with it because of the wealth of knowledge and description, and just the fact that Wooding’s imagination is fucked up. It’s weird. There are so many evil, spooky things in it. Characterisation is, for the most part, well written. The plot is good, and the suspense is fantastic, and I love Cathaline. She’s the bomb.

Have you read this novel? Are you going to? Drop a comment and tell me all about it. Or about something different. Up to you.

 

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