book review: the hazel wood

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Flatiron Books, 368 pp.
Published January 30, 2018

The Hazel Wood

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Flatiron Books via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Summary (via Goodreads): 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.

My thoughts: Melissa Albert's entertaining debut has much in common with Angela Carter, Deathless, and Uprooted. While lacking the dark, adult bite of The Bloody ChamberThe Hazel Wood approaches fairy tales and fables with all the hushed reverence of a supplicant at the altar. It is from this authorial admiration that the Hinterland and its inhabitants draw their power, for The Hazel Wood is a fairy tale about fairy tales, a nesting doll of legends, myths, and the power they wield across time and distance.

Heroine Alice Proserpine serves as guide to the fantastical. She possesses an acerbic undercurrent not commonly found in similar books; it's a welcome departure from stereotypical YA leads, whose flaws most often amount to traits found in any average human. Some of her running commentary on people and events even merits a genuine out-loud laugh. In addition, Alice knows the "rules" of surviving fairy tales, which lends a meta-twist that helps draw the reader in as a participant.

Ms. Albert's prose continues the theme of self-reference. One character is described as having "Captain Hook eyes—mournful and cornflower blue, with a phantom glaze of red when he was angry." Houses passed by night are "closed and clannish, like that one house you skip on Halloween." Much like her protagonists, the reader can never escape the fantastic, hemmed in by the use of lyrical imagery to describe the mundane.

Sidekick Ellery knows even more than the self-aware Alice, having read a rare copy of her grandmother's stories. This knowledge substitutes for depth of character though, as he feels a little flimsy by comparison. Were he the complementary character to Alice this might pose a problem, yet The Hazel Wood concerns itself with a mother-daughter relationship above all else. Ella, Alice's kidnapped mother, disappears early but lingers persistently through memory. If you interpret fairy tales as stories meant to impart key morals to the young, then The Hazel Wood's lesson would be on the maturation of one's relationship with her parents. Alice shifts from a dependent to an equal of her mother's through age and experience, much as children do the same in our world now.

Because The Hazel Wood draws so heavily on folklore its twists and turns may please more than they surprise. As the heroine gathers clues and talismans, enlisting a companion for her journey before being forced to confront the most difficult tasks alone, a comfortable familiarity hangs over the narrative. What sets it apart from simple regurgitation, again, is Ms. Albert's penchant for descriptive language. The unearthly Hinterland bleeds out across the pages, coloring Alice's perception and, in turn, ours as well. It is a world so richly realized that it practically begs for a film adaptation, although I doubt that any effects could do the individual imagination justice.

Only two complaints keep The Hazel Wood from five-star status. In contrast to Alice's narration, which evokes a richness of setting in both "our" world and the Hinterland, the dialogue has a bit of a klunky, amateur delivery. While no worse than any average YA novel you can pluck off the shelves, when compared to the descriptive prose or Alice's reflections it jars an otherwise engrossing passage. The persistent references to contemporary fantasy pop culture are also a miss for me. They give the events a concrete date—or decade, at least—that may make the novel age less gracefully.

However, both of these shortcomings reflect personal pet peeves of mine, and so may not impact another's enjoyment in the slightest. I would heartily recommend The Hazel Wood to any fantasy genre fan hungering for a more ominous tale. My parting regret is that Ms. Albert listed the titles of every story in Tales from the Hinterland, but only revealed the plot for a handful. Perhaps she's planning a pseudo-sequel? I certainly hope so; those untold fables are only a few of the many promising shadows lurking along the fringes of The Hazel Wood.

RATING: ★★★ ½


8 comments:

  1. This sounds like a beautifully written novel. I'll have to keep an eye out.

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    1. It really is! I was often reminded of Catherynne Valente's Deathless, not necessarily in exact style, but how they both used traditional imagery and sentence structure to tell their own, modern fables :)

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  2. I really look forward to read this! I quite enjoyed Deathless, especially the whole dark fairytale vibe it has!

    Tasya // The Literary Huntress

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    1. Then you'll definitely love The Hazel Wood! It isn't quite as adult (since Deathless wasn't YA) but they're very closely related cousins in the dark fairytale family!

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  3. Wow, that was a stunning review. I loved reading this so, so much, thank you for sharing. I already have The Hazel Wood on my TBR and you made me a bit more impatient to read it :)

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    1. Thank you! :) And link me your review when you've read it, I'd love to hear what you think!

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  4. God, I love your reviews! These are so detailed and perfectly crafted, I can't even <3

    The Hazel Wood is one of my most anticipated reads for 2018 and this review gives me good enough reasons to let it be in there. A lyrical prose is always a pleasure and that might be my number one reason to pick up this book. The concept is pretty nice, though dialogues play an important role in my love for the characters so that's the tricky part. I do hope this one proves to be good, can't wait to read it.

    Also, if I haven't already said, I love your reviews and you've got a fan here!

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    1. Wow, thank you, I'm so flattered! ♥

      I don't think the dialogue will hinder your enjoyment at all. It's a sticking point for me in general, but it didn't keep me from finishing The Hazel Wood in about a day! I hope you'll let me know what you think after you've read it :)

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