Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Version: ARC – eBook (Uncorrected Proof)
Page Count: N/A
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Notable Notables: Modern-day setting with fantasy elements, POC character
Recommended Readers: Those who want to take a strange, eerie journey to someplace new
Thank you, NetGalley and Flatiron Books, for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
My actual review is probably closer to 3.5 stars, but I really don’t like giving half-stars, so 4 stars it is.
Alice and her mother Ella have always been on the move, dogged by bad luck wherever they go. They receive a letter that Alice’s grandmother, Althea Proserpine, an author of a cult-classic book of dark fairytales, has died at her estate, the Hazel Wood, and Ella believes their bad luck is finally over.
Alice does, too, until Ella is abducted, seemingly by figures from the Hinterland, the fictional world where Althea’s book is set. Ella leaves Alice with only one message: Stay away from the Hazel Wood.
So naturally, that’s where Alice must go to find answers and her mother, but she has to find the elusive estate first. Along with Hinterland super-fan, Ellery Finch, who has his own reasons for helping Alice, the two embark on a journey to locate both the Hazel Wood and the Hinterland and discover the truth about Alice’s eerie upbringing.
I was really expecting to love The Hazel Wood. It sounded like it was going to be a creepy and otherworldly story where nothing is as it seems at first glance. It sounded like it would be a story about stories, about dark fairytales that we all forgot and in truth weren’t supposed to know in the first place. I can honestly say that this book was about that, eventually. When we got there.
Perhaps the first 20%, though, was Alice telling the reader about her life and upbringing, which, cool, good information to have. But there was so much of it. It felt like reading a voice over narration, like something from Fight Club or Trainspotting. Readers wouldn’t know about any of the relationships between Alice and the other characters in the book if Alice wasn’t stopping scenes at every turn to break down the history for you. That got exhausting after a while. When was the story going to happen?
Alice learning that her mom was stolen away is when the novel finally gets going. I enjoyed this part immensely, not just because things were happening, but also because Ellery Finch was thrown into the mix.
As a black teenager, Finch added a lot more to the narrative with his knowledge and quirky demeanor. He and Alice clashed at times but were ultimately a good team. As Finch tells Alice about these fairytales she never got to read and they try to figure out where the Hazel Wood is, more and more freaky stuff begins happening to them.
Their reactions and how they handle all these creepy, bizarre situations show you what kind of characters they are, pulling you in so that you’d be eager for what happened to them next. Would they figure things out in time? Would they be alright? What chilling thing is going to happen next? I got increasingly nervous for them the closer to the Hazel Wood they got, especially since Finch was clearly hiding something.
However, the reveal of what that something was and Alice proceeding alone was where the novel reached its climax and began going downhill for me. And it wasn’t supposed to.
That was supposed to happen after Alice reached the Hazel Wood and entered the Hinterland, not before. At this point, I realized that Alice taking this journey alone was a huge narrative mistake. While there were certain situations she had to address alone, Alice herself wasn’t engaging enough as a character to carry the rest of the novel.
Especially not after the journey inside the Hinterland turned out to be two incredibly disappointing things: flat and much too brief. Alice reaching this point was what the novel had been building up to, but it was barely explored. I felt like I’d crossed less into a Spirited Away situation and more like I’d stumbled into an unfamiliar, dense cove of trees and accidentally found some squatters back there. This was supposed to be a magical moment, and it just wasn’t.
I hoped things would pick up after Alice discovered what she was, but it still never came alive again. I was further let down when the solution to freeing herself from the Hinterland came too easy and was far too rushed.
I did like how Finch eventually returned and how both he and Alice chose to follow their own paths instead of giving everything up for each other—for what would have essentially been only a teenage crush. Still, I didn’t feel resolved by the book’s ending at all and became more dissatisfied as time went on. Something was missing, and I couldn’t grasp it.
That’s when I realized what it was. A happy ending. Not something sugary sweet and “they lived happily ever after.” The happy ending I’m talking about is peace.
Alice cuts herself off from the Hinterland. It’s what she wanted. To live as a normal person on earth, to be with her mom, for them to be normal and stationary and never have to look over their shoulders again. Alice won that for them both.
Yet, she’s not happy. She’s not at peace with her decisions. She feels like she’s missing something and is aimless, to the point where she starts going to a support group that other people from the Hinterland are attending because they, too, feel lost, numb, and dissatisfied. Alice does bond with someone while there, and we’re left with a sense that Alice is improving kind of? But her final frame of mind we see her in is one where she’s just going through the motions of an average, ordinary, dull life.
I ask you, what are these closing scenes supposed to do for me? What final takeaway am I supposed to gain from this? That Alice would’ve been ultimately happier in the Hinterland even though she wouldn’t have had any agency? That once you have a taste of the fantastical, real life isn’t good enough anymore?
Yikes, no thanks. I’ll pass.
I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like anything about this book because that simply isn’t true. I actually liked the majority of the story from the 20% to 80% mark. I loved how creeped out I got by the mystery behind it all. I loved the emphasis on stories, how Alice centered her memories around them, and how integral storytelling was to her own being. I loved the message that some stories are dangerous and need to be carefully handled. I loved how savage and unconventional the stories from the Hinterland are and how they aren’t meant to teach a lesson or impart a warning or make you feel good about yourself. They are just what they are.
But these things weren’t enough to make up for the novel’s own, very real storytelling flaws. I was talking to a friend of mine who also read an ARC (hey, Colby!), and we both agreed that the story Melissa Albert meant to tell with The Hazel Wood might have been too ambitious for her as a debut novel. We both wish she could have gotten a few other books under her belt and gained more experience before tackling this one because it could’ve been a truly amazing piece of work. Instead, we’re left with sub-par enthusiasm for it. It’s decent, and we’d recommend for other people to give it a try because we know there are people who will love this book. However, at the same time, we’re haunted by the idea of how great it could’ve been.
I’m also not sure why there’s going to be a second novel after this one. Alice’s story, and the Hinterland’s, were wrapped up even though I wasn’t happy with those wrappings. I’m not sure what other character she’s going to follow and what else needs to be told. Maybe if the next one is about Finch’s future or Althea’s past, I’ll read it because that could be interesting.
If nothing else, I will be picking up Tales from the Hinterland for sure. I love me some dark original fairytales, and I need to know how a certain one ends.