The Hazel Wood
By Melissa Albert
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Genre: YA Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”
Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.
The Hazel Wood seems to have generated a lot of buzz this year. There is this great divide between the love and dislike (hate is such a strong word). I started off eagerly adding this one to my TBR with great enthusiasm that slowly began to waiver as reviews rolled out. Fortunately, in my case, my fears were unwarranted and this was a success! I lean heavily into the group of readers who embrace this darker tale with open arms.
Alice is a 17-year-old girl who has spent her entire life on the road with her mother Ella. A life clouded with bad luck, they hurriedly pick up and relocate each time things go wrong. She also happens to be the granddaughter of Althea Prosperine, an author known for an elusive and famous collection of dark fairy tales entitled Tales from the Hinterland. But after her mother receives notice that Althea has passed and then mysteriously vanishes, Alice soon discovers that there is much to her grandmother’s collection. With the help of a young fan and classmate Ellery Finch, she sets out for her grandmother’s estate, The Hazel Wood, in search of her mother. But she finds more than she could ever bargain for.
I will be the first to admit that The Hazel Wood unfolds at a somewhat leisurely pace for nearly 70% of the book. Character development is slow and challenging. We are presented with a protagonist that is difficult to like but not hard to appreciate. While I struggled to “love” Alice’s rough attitude, I also found myself unable to fault her. I found the fact that she referred to her mother by name to be irritating and also often felt she was overly aggressive. But when reflecting on her disheveled life and lack of roots, it was still relatable or at least understandable at its core. It works. You do not have to like characters for them to be viable and rewarding. Alice is a prime example of this. I also found great appreciation in supporting characters such as Ellery and those she encounters during their journey that offered a complimentary balance to Alice’s flaws and shortcomings.
The storyline was where I found complete satisfaction with The Hazel Wood. Albert’s decision to incorporate the stories from Althea Prosperine’s book into the narrative was brilliant and countered the pacing issues I was facing. I thoroughly loved reading the dark and twisted fairytales. I think I may have favored them over the actual plot though so I can see how some found disappointment within depending on expectations. For myself, I was entirely okay with this fact and the brief tales drove me to want to explore Alice and her mother’s disappearance more. They were cleverly placed throughout, providing the necessary momentum and turning what might have otherwise been another YA fantasy into something special, a new collection of fairy tales.
“My love he wooed me
My love he slew me
My love he buried my bones
His love he married
His love I buried
My love now wanders alone ”
The writing is engaging and detailed while remaining plot oriented and forgoing the typical frivolities. The fairytales unfold with a poetic prose. There is an admirable lack of the normal tropes one would expect to encounter, and the end experience is hauntingly smooth and lingering. It has been a week since I completed the book, and I do not find myself struggling to review it. It remains as vivid now as the very night I completed it. That alone speaks volumes. Fans of those traditionally bleaker fairytales who enjoy a good mystery will want to sink their teeth into this one.
*I would like to thank the publisher for my copy. The above review is my own, honest and unbiased opinion.
Pairs well with a nice cup of oolong and ginger.