If you enjoy the atmosphere and imagination of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, or Philip Reeve, then you’re sure to like Chris Wooding, a YA fantasy author who does not feel the need to fill his fantasy world with elves, dwarfs, wizards, dragons and every other fantasy cliché that’s been done to death since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings.
Some authors are willing to explore new territory, and Wooding is one of these. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is set in an indefinable time-period of London: it appears to be mid-19th century, but events are occurring that bear no resemblance whatsoever to our historical knowledge of the period. The city is haunted by creatures known as ‘wych-kin’, a variety of monstrous and grotesque creatures that prey on the city’s inhabitants. The only defence against such mysterious and deadly beings are the ‘wych-hunters’, such as Thaniel Fox and his mentor Cathaline Bennett. They live turbulent, dangerous and (more often than not) short lives as they hunt down and destroy the wyches, driven by a desire to rid their city of the supernatural infection that is slowly eradicating the world.
Thaniel is a seventeen year old wych-hunter, partnered to Cathaline since his father’s death (who was also a hunter). Together the two scout London, finding new methods to destroy the wych-kin and keep the citizens safe, whilst remaining on the outskirts of society. It is on one such patrol of the city that Thaniel discovers an incoherent and dishevelled girl wandering about in her nightgown. Feverish and with no memory of how she came to be wandering the night-time streets, Thaniel takes her home in order to untangle the mystery. Who is this mysterious girl? What does the tattoo on her back signify? And does she have anything to do with the influx of wych-kin roaming the city? The intrigue and action doesn’t let up for a single page as Wooding unravels the mystery, sustaining interest and excitement till the very last page.
His best effort is in the creation of a detailed and intoxicating atmosphere, a fully realised world filled with asylums, secret cults, upperclass neighbourhoods, beggar’s communities, prostitutes, churches and parliament houses. London isn’t just haunted by wych-kin, there are wolves that stalk the back-streets and the enigmatic psychopath Stitch-face who is yet to be captured by the authorities. The dark and dense atmosphere of the story will remain long after the book is finished. As dangerous and unwelcoming as it is, you can’t help but be sucked into it. This alternative London is just as much a character as Thaniel and Alaizabel themselves, and Chapter Twenty in particular is a remarkable example of how strong Wooding’s creation is: for this one chapter the main protagonists are completely absent, and instead Wooding centres on the inhabitants of London and their terrifying ordeals against the wych-kin. It’s creepy, imaginative and (most importantly) original stuff.
Thaniel, Cathaline and Alaizabel are all likeable characters, though we never really get inside their heads. Though sympathetic, they are more like action-figures than three-dimensional characters. However, if Wooding is short on characterisation, he more than makes up for it in action and ideas; setting, plot, pacing and atmosphere — it’s all wonderfully new as opposed to another fantasy rehash. Though not for the faint of heart (as it can get a little gruesome at times) The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is a great read.