The Hazel Wood – by Melissa Albert (Review)

The Hazel Wood #1

Fantasy, YA

Flatiron Books; January 30, 2018

356 pages (ebook)

12 hr, 11 min (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4 / 5 ✪

When Alice Proserpine was six, a strange red-haired man came to kidnap her. Now, unlike most kidnappers, he didn’t cover his face or hers. He didn’t bundle her into a van and threaten her or her mother. He didn’t demand a ransom for her, or much of anything else. He simply pulled up in an old blue Buick and asked if she’d like a ride to meet her grandmother. And Alice, being a child, said yes.

Years later, Alice still remembers the man. The way he spoke and laughed. How he’d bought her pancakes and told her the strangest stories while she ate them. How the police found them after 14 hours, and how they were amazed to hear he hadn’t mistreated her. She remembers him, and how panicked her mother, Ella, was to find her. Years later, Alice’s mother is still haunted by this event—although Alice remembers it fondly, through a haze of being young and impressionable, she reasons. It is the reason they move from town to town like drifters. The reason Alice concocts a different last name and life story each time they do. The reason that some days she awakens to find her mother up, the car packed and waiting. It—and her grandmother, Althea—is the reason they are never safe.

Alice is seventeen now, and her mother has settled down somewhat. They currently reside in New York City, where her mother has married wealthy businessman Harold. Now Alice shares a penthouse loft with him and her mother, and his daughter Audrey, a stereotypical rich, popular, snob who’s addicted to her phone and fashion. That is, until one day when Ella vanishes, and Harold throws her out at gunpoint, wild-eyed and raving nonsensically. Newly destitute and—well, more destitute than usual—desperate to find Ella, Alice turns to the only person she can: billionaire’s son Ellery Finch, and the closest thing she has to a friend. But not only is Ellery the awkward, geeky slush fund of disposable income that Alice has never wanted, he’s also the only person she has ever met who’s read “Tales from the Hinterland”, her grandmother Althea’s book, and—apparently—the reason this whole fiasco started.

A cult classic, Tales from the Hinterland is nothing but a collection of loosely-tied fairy tales, though each one featuring a strange and dark ending. Not that Alice has ever read them. But Finch has. And it’s his knowledge that may be the key for finding Ella. All Alice has to do is disregard Ella’s final message to her: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

The Hazel Wood was not at all what I expected. I mean, going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. Something about fairy tales, surely. But we really don’t get into the fairy tales until the halfway mark or so—prior to that there’re only snippets and clues. An adventure-thriller, with mystery and fantasy thrown in—the Hazel Wood defied my expectations as surely as it will your own.

It’s a great read, for the most part. What begins as a thought-provoking mystery soon becomes a heart-pounding pursuit, which itself becomes a rescue op gone wrong. It’s quite the ride, on the whole, twisting and turning plot-lines that weave and intersect so frequently that there’s never any problem reading. But in the end—which I’m totally NOT giving away—it all kinda fizzles out. Not that there isn’t any resolution. Just that it isn’t entirely satisfactory. It’s certainly lackluster. Althea, Ella, and the Hazel Wood have all been the driving factors to this point. But following the resolution, what Alice wants gets… muddied up a bit. The results of this are a bit anticlimactic, but hopefully get resolved in the next book. In fact, “The Boy Who Never Came Home”, a short told from Ellery’s POV, helps fill in some bits and pieces. This was included with the edition I read, though you may have to find it elsewhere if you get a different one. While this novella and the original story combine to create a MORE satisfactory ending, it’s still far from what I’d hoped. But as I said, hopefully the second book pulls everything together.

The setting of the Hazel Wood is spectacular. Not so much New York City, which looks and sounds like a city no matter how you spin it—once we get Upstate, or to the Hazel Wood itself, the depiction really takes a turn. It certainly reads like a dark fairy tale from that moment on, and I was left picturing a world like that of Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll which had been dipped in ink and left to absorb around the edges. A truly dark and twisted world that inspires both dreams and nightmares alike.

The characters—Alice and Finch in particular—are impressive. While none else have the depth, the attention to detail that these two command, no others are around quite as much as they are. From the relationship between the two (whatever it is), to the way it affects their actions, to the manner in which it changes over the course of the telling, I was absorbed by the way Melissa Albert uses it to strengthen her story. Though it can’t be said that individual character growth and development are nearly so strong, their mutual bond shows that such a thing can be possible [in the future].

TL;DR

The Hazel Wood was quite a read—action, adventure, mystery and enjoyable but dark fantasy all twirled into one. While I’m definitely interested in anything more Melissa Albert has to offer, the ending somewhat soured me on it, thus I did not go out and buy the next book directly upon finishing it. Where the individual character development disappointed, the twisting way in which Alice and Finch’s relationship changes more than makes up for it. The dark fairy tale setting is lovely, as the author seems to have captured the very essence of fairy tales and brought them to life, but with a dark, bloody twist. I hear a copy of the Tales of the Hinterland is in the works, and would love to read it! But until 2021, you’ll have to make do with The Night Country, which follows the Hazel Wood and hopefully ties up some loose threads. If you get to it before me, could you stop by and let me know how it is? Thank you!

Audio Note: It actually took me some time to get used to the reader, Rebecca Soler, but once I did I thought that she encapsulated Alice quite nicely. While I’d certainly recommend it (and her) for the heart-pounding moments of anticipation or the slow, methodical mysteries throughout—I’m less than sold on the fast-paced action elements. It may just be me but I found that she sorta slurs the words together a bit to get them out faster (like I do when I talk fast), and at protracted times it became more difficult to follow. Just my opinion, not a shot or anything.

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