fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase reviewThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first book in the Wolves Saga by Joan Aiken, a series of books set in an alternative 18th century England in the reign of King James III. In this altered history a large number of wolves migrate from the bitter cold of Europe and Russia into Britain via the Channel Tunnel, and terrorize the inhabitants in their continuing hunting.

The story is set at Willoughby Chase, the grand home of Lord Willoughby and Lady Green and their daughter Bonnie. Due to Lady Green’s wasting illness, Bonnie’s parents are taking a holiday in warmer climates and leaving her in the care of the Lord’s newly-arrived distant cousin Letitia Slighcarp. Also due to arrive is Bonnie’s orphan cousin Sylvia who lived in London with Lord Willoughby’s poorer sister Aunt Jane, coming to keep her cousin company in her parent’s absence. Sylvia is nervous about the train ride into the vast and wolf-ridden countryside, but the cousins become instant friends on her arrival, with an entire life of playing, skating and adventures together.

Yet the blissful life is not to last. In her parent’s absence, Mrs Slighcarp takes over the household, dismissing the household servants, wearing Lady Green’s gowns, and tampering with Lord Willoughby’s legal papers with the help of Mr Grimshaw, the man who was supposedly knocked unconscious on Sylvia’s train and taken into the care of Willoughby Chase. Despite the best efforts of James the clever footman, Pattern the girl’s beloved maid and Simon, the goose-boy living half wild in the woods, the girl’s plans to fetch back their parents goes astray, and Mrs Slighcarp sends them to a dismal orphanage after the news that Bonnie’s parents have died.

Bonnie and Sylvia quickly weaken under the strain of the difficult living conditions, and Bonnie realised they must find a way to escape due to Sylvia’s worsening health. Hope arrives however in the form of Simon the goose-boy, and together they plot a way to escape and reclaim Bonnie’s inheritance…

I can’t imagine a single child that wouldn’t find this story appealing. With enough wolves, riches, villains, plotting and child independence to keep them satisfied for a long time, this book is sure to become a favourite, as are the others in the series. Bonnie and Sylvia are wonderful young protagonists, with Bonnie as the confident, ever-optimistic young tomboy, and Sylvia as the more timid, but never annoying, young lady. If you’re concerned that boys may not be interested in female protagonists, Simon the young goose-boy should please them, as there’s always a fascination for independent children living wild in the forests. Mrs Slighcarp, Mr Grimsby and Mrs Brisket (the *real* wolves of Willoughby Chase) are nasty villains, and therefore good ones, which everyone will love to see get their just desserts at the conclusion.

The scenery is beautifully created through Aiken’s language, whether it be Sylvia’s night time train ride, the opulence of the Willoughby house, or the children’s summery travels in the countryside, and the pacing never slows or dwindles on any needless details. One scene in particular, when the girls are being hunted down by wolves on the estate’s grounds is particularly gripping.

However, some older readers may be skeptical at the actual story itself. It seems to hold every cliché that a Victorian Children’s Romance could have: a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, a villainous governess, a forged will, a cruel orphanage, a false death and a great escape, where every possible mishap is concluded with a happy ending — even if it’s outrageously implausible (such as Bonnie’s parents miraculous escape). Yet despite all this, somehow Joan Aiken seems to make it all seem real and natural through her strong and descriptive writing. A great book to read aloud, and follow up with its sequel  Black Hearts in Battersea.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.