On Amazon: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray
Author website: Chris Wooding
This book is... well, imagine that I am person who reads a lot of fantasy and horror. Imagine that I am a person who is heavily into steampunk and Victorian aesthetic, that I love the show Supernatural, that I am a sucker for unconventional heroines and pretty boys with daddy issues, and that alternate history hits all of my buttons.
This books takes all of my favourite things and smushes them together into one great big mess of awesome.
It's set in an alternate history London, where the Prussian Empire developed airships (airships!!) and bombed the shit out of London until England rolled over and showed its belly. (The British obviously had yet to fine-tune the whole stiff-upper-lip deal) Immediately following the flattening of half the city, the wych-kin showed up - nightmares made flesh, supernatural being like-but-unlike the fairy-stories and legends. They ate people, mostly, but operated on their own particular set of rules. So there developed a class of wych-hunters to combat the threat.
Twenty years later, young Thaniel is a wych-hunter like his father. (His father who is dead. He has a dead father.) He's out rocking the six-shooters and long coat one night when he comes across a lunatic girl in a nightdress and takes her home.
From there the plot proceeds along pretty classic lines - you know from the first moment they say the conspiriacy reaching to the highest levels of government just isn't possible, that we've found our villains, and that they wouldn't dare tear open the border between life and death to raise the old gods that they're going to do exactly that. The real attraction is the very cool world-building - I am such a sucker for world-building, seriously - and the delightful characters.
Thaniel is a seventeen-year-old trying desperately to fill his father's enormous shoes, and burying himself under a boatload of issues in the process. He's assisted ably by his mentor Cathaline, who kicks ass, takes names, and looks good doing it. Then there's Carver, a policeman who's just trying to solve a serial murder case and accidentally stumbles into the whole mess.
And then there's Alaizabel.
Dude, I was so prepared to hate Alaizabel. A terrified, beautiful, vulnerable blonde thing rescued by the big manly hero, half-mad and possessed by an evil spirit? Damsel territory all the way. But she surprised me. As soon as she figures out what's happening, she's not scared anymore. She's named her fears, so she can deal with them. And then she realises - as her body is being manipulated, puppet-style - that's she's measures stronger than the evil spirit, plenty powerful enough to subdue and defeat it. Which she does, with admirable clear-headedness. And then, after being violently kidnapped, drugged, strung up naked in front of a roomful of people and viciously mind-raped, she wakes up locked in the loony bin, escapes by herself, talks herself out of the clutches of a serial killer, and goes on to use the knowledge she pulled from the spirit possessing her to save the goddamned day.
Alaizabel is awesome. She's not the tough chick - that's Cathaline - but she's smart, and canny, and stubborn, adn she makes it work for her. Cathaline is awesome too - her relationship with Thaniel is strong and trusting without being motherly, and she's a powerful, compassionate, tough female figure without being overly sexualised or weakened in the slightest. I'm not sure it passes the Bechdel test, but I have a feeling it does - these two women are really strongly drawn, without being heavy-handed.
The plot is obviously heavily influenced by Lovecraft, and is strongly horror-themed, but that's a recommedation, for reals.
- The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray