The Hazel Wood: Not quite enough magic to enchant

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert YA fantasy book reviewsThe Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert YA fantasy book reviewsThe Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood (2018) is one of those novels whose reputation precedes it. Authors and critics alike are singing the book’s praises, dubbing it mesmerising, creepy, captivating. It promises to be a dark and twisting fairytale in the vein of Caraval and The Bear and the Nightingale, but can Melissa Albert‘s debut live up to its own hype?

Alice and her mother have moved from place to place for as long as she can remember. Whenever they settle anywhere too long, sinister things begin to happen, so they’ve spent Alice’s childhood trying to outrun the bad luck that constantly hounds them. But when Alice’s grandmother, Althea Proserpine — the famous and enigmatic author of a book of dark fairy tales — dies, her mother finally settles down. The bad luck seemed to originate with Althea, who despite her literary fame, had a string of dead husbands and eventually disappeared from the public eye altogether, becoming a recluse on her estate, the eponymous Hazel Wood.

But it seems fate won’t let Alice off that easily. Just when it looks like she’s settled into the banal normality of public school life with a neurotic stepsister to boot, her mother vanishes, whisked away by a figure purporting to be from the Hinterland, the dark world in which her grandmother’s stories are set.

The most information Alice has got on her grandmother comes from magazine articles; she hasn’t even managed to get her hands on a copy of Althea’s infamous book. But now Alice must join forces with her grandmother’s superfan, her classmate Ellery Finch, who has long been obsessed with the famous fairy tales. Together they must go to Hazel Wood and then further — into the dark world where her grandmother’s fairy tales all began — to try and find her mother.

The story promises to be dark and sinister, but the darkest thing about The Hazel Wood is Alice’s mood swings. She alternates between neurotic and furious, with inexplicable bursts of rage she keeps having to talk herself out of. Understandably Albert was trying to craft the kind of unconventional and alternative protagonist that goes down so well in YA, but her characterisation was all over the place. Alice didn’t read like a normal teenager at all, and her contradictions are so unconvincing that readers may be pulled out of the story. And on a side note, her vulgar language is not doing her any favours. Whether you’re going for a quirky character or not, there is just no need for that amount of F-bombs.

And it’s not just the characters that will inhibit the reader from being able to fully immerse themselves in this story. The prose is needlessly, distractingly flowery. Authors that write in the dark fairy tale vein (and there are a lot of them, now) seem to think that this is some kind of prerequisite for this kind of story, but it only serves to distract.

The pacing of The Hazel Wood is also a little off. The first half of the story is an exposition-heavy narration of Alice’s childhood and her subsequent road trip to Hazel Wood after her mother’s disappearance. The promised dark fairy tale land isn’t introduced to the second half, and by then it feels jarring set against the contemporary world of coffee shops and trust-fund kids we’ve been inhabiting until now.

There is probably a large readership that this book will appeal to — fans of Caraval and The Bear and the Nightingale will not be disappointed. And there’s no denying the buzz that surrounds The Hazel Wood, so as long as you’re not looking for convincing characterisation and you’re a fan of over-lyrical prose, perhaps this book will be for you.

~Ray McKenzie


The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert YA fantasy book reviewsMelissa Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood is indeed uneven, spending altogether too much time on the protagonists’ journey to the Hazel Wood and then precious little time in the Hazel Wood and the forbidding, otherworldly Hinterland. The characters never leapt off the page, as much as I wanted them to; Alice’s constant, uncreative swearing and litany of times she got drunk, times she lashed out in anger, and cigarettes she’s smoked are a thin veneer of personality. Okay, we get it, she’s tough gal who doesn’t want anyone to see her sensitive inner self. Alice’s anger is palpable, but too-frequently aimless, and I often wished Albert would have trusted the reader to pick up a few breadcrumbs on their own. It was easy to see that there’s something wrong with her, though I didn’t expect Albert’s explanation for why Alice and her mother Ella have spent Alice’s entire life on the run.

It confused me that Ellery Finch claimed that Althea Prosperine wrote her stories “like a war correspondent,” because the few glimpses the reader is given of her Tales of the Hinterland were interesting, but didn’t rise above the standard combination of grimdark and flowery language so many modern fairy-tale-retellings employ. It was difficult to get a sense for why this strange little book was so compelling and how it rocketed Prosperine to fame. I wanted to know more about Finch, because he seemed like he had the potential to be an interesting character, especially considering his eventual fate.

The Hazel Wood got really interesting when Alice crosses the border between this world and the Hinterland, where the stories came from, and the novel became more about the stories, themselves, and how they are formed and exist as singular entities and in the context of other stories. I wanted to know a lot more about the Hinterland and its inhabitants, primarily because of the potential to truly get meta-fictional and provide commentary on the core concept of story-telling, but also in terms of how Prosperine’s stories affected so many peoples’ lives. That idea is touched on throughout the novel, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, but is often sidelined by Alice’s frustrated attempts to focus the narrative back onto herself.

The ending itself was far too abrupt, with the very strong sense that I was watching the last five minutes of an origin-story movie or the pilot episode of a television show. (It is no surprise to me that the movie-option rights to The Hazel Wood have already been purchased.) I was intrigued by many aspects of The Hazel Wood, but more than anything else, I was inspired to re-read Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All, which shares many elements with this novel, but in a much more satisfactory way.

~Jana Nyman


The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert YA fantasy book reviewsAlice Proserpine has always led a drifter’s life with her mother Ella. They scrape by on the edge of homelessness, constantly moving from place to place, staying with friends until they wear out their welcome, bad luck relentlessly dogging their footsteps wherever they go. And they never speak about Ella’s mother Althea, a reclusive author who lives in a grand, nearly impossible to find estate called the Hazel Wood, and who was famous for Tales from the Hinterland, a mysterious, nearly impossible to find collection of dark and bloody fairy tales. All Alice knows about this tantalizing book (before her mother snatched it away from her, never to be seen again) is the titles of the stories, including the intriguingly named “Alice-Three-Times.”

When Ella gets word that Althea has died, she’s determined to stop running from life. She marries a rich New Yorker after a whirlwind courtship and she and Alice try ― or not ― to adjust to a different lifestyle. Alice is seething with anger and frustration most of the time, and Ella’s marriage rapidly begins fraying.

Then their lives get upended again, but in a way that blindsides Alice: Ella is kidnapped by two people who say they are from the Hinterland. She disappears without a trace, leaving behind only a message for Alice: “Stay the hell away from the Hazel Wood.” Which message, of course, Alice has absolutely no intention of heeding. Alice enlists her friend Ellery Finch, a longtime fan of Tales from the Hinterland, to help her in her search. But she has no idea where to find the Hazel Wood, or what awaits her there.

The Hazel Wood begins as a quirky, bleak urban fantasy set in our contemporary world. In the first half of the book the plot unrolls at a leisurely pace, enlivened only by Ella’s kidnapping, Alice’s search for the Hazel Wood, and some occasional run-ins with suspicious dark characters. But the murky horror of the Hazel Wood and the Hinterland cast a gloom over every page, reinforced by Finch’s occasional retelling of some of the stories from the copy of Tales of the Hinterland that he read long ago.

The pace picks up in the second half when the novel suddenly shifts gears to a dark fairy tale type of setting. I enjoyed the creativity and fantasy of this part of the novel much more than the first part, though I was underwhelmed at a couple of key points: the climactic scene and the ending both struck me as weak.

Melissa Albert’s writing, though Alice’s first person narrative voice, was a major plus for me. Her language is lush and evocative, though I’ll admit it sometimes sidles toward purple prose:

There was a funny glitter in [Ella’s] eyes as she watched herself in the mirror. I thought of that later, when she came home with a twin glitter on her ring finger: a rock as big as the Ritz.

 

My memory of that night is tattered, a movie screen clawed to pieces. The glint of the ring lodged in my eye like a shard of demon glass, and the anger overwhelmed me. 

The main character, Alice, is rude, inconsiderate, foul-mouthed and, more often than not, angry; certainly not an easy character to appreciate. Her main good point is her deep devotion and love for Ella. I wasn’t as irritated by her as Ray and Jana were, partly because the reason for her irascible nature, when finally disclosed, was an unusual and compelling one. Still, the amount of swearing (a Kindle search informs me that there are 22 F-bombs in this book) was a definite turn-off for me for a YA fantasy.

At one point Finch tells Alice:

I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic, where shitty things happen. And they don’t happen for a reason, or in threes, or in a way that looks like justice. They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.

Much the same could be said of this book: It’s harsh and flawed but there’s creativity and beauty in it. Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed The Hazel Wood.

~Tadiana Jones

Published January 30, 2018. 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.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. It sounds like an interesting idea, but not ultimately successful. I won’t be in a hurry to get this one. Lately the reviews have added SO MANY books to my reading list that it isn’t as if I have to pad it or anything!

    • Yeah, I wouldn’t rush on this one. If you’ve got other books clamoring for your attention, I’d recommend focusing on them.

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