Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Dates read: 09 Jan 18 – 11 Jan 18
Publication date: 08 Feb 18
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre(s): Young Adult; Fantasy; Fairy tale retelling
Description: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a 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 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.
To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began . . .
I received an e-ARC of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House Children’s Publishing and Net Galley in return for a fair and honest review.
When I received a copy of this book, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew very little about the book, even less about the author, and pretty much only recognised it from it’s rather beautiful cover (both the UK (L) and US editions (R), but mostly US). The premise sounded absolutely fascinating, and for the large part was immersive, creepy, and engaging.
This book has a creepy and dark undertone that is absolutely delicious in it’s freshness, and wholly unexpected in a YA novel. In the modern day book world of YA fantasy and fairy tale retellings, it’s rare to find a world that is so unique and that captures your attention quite so completely. The Hinterland is rich and dark, cruel and relentless, and is absolutely everything you would want from a fairy tale world in a novel. The problem? The execution of the premise.
The book centres around a seventeen year old girl in New York called Alice. She lives a largely nomadic lifestyle with her mother Ella, with bad luck and misfortune following them from place to place and home to home. We find out a little more about Alice as the book progresses, about her step father Harold and step sister Audrey, and about her grandmother Althea Prosperine. The more I saw and the more we learnt as reader, the less I liked her, but for me that felt like the point. Alice wasn’t an inherently dislikeable character, she just wasn’t someone I actively liked, and as the book progressed and her story developed, I felt like her flaws became more and more prominent, and I quite enjoyed her development and decline.
Her relationship with friend/acquaintance/financer/sound board/knowledge hub Ellery Finch has such a refreshingly unusual dynamic. At the beginning, we know as much as Alice does about Finch, and as they get to know each other, we get to know them. Their relationship, in my opinion, was one of the best (if under-explored) aspects of the book itself. Yes, I felt like Finch was little more than a plot device throughout, but until the end he was an interesting element to have bubbling along throughout the story. Most importantly for me, it was nice to have a relationship that was not founded on looks, romantic attachment, or one that ended up overthrowing the main plot.
There were many good aspects to this books, the brilliance of the original premise, the potential of a budding world of stories and characters, but for every good point there was something that didn’t quite work or that wasn’t perfect.
The start of the book was slow, and for the first 7 chapters I struggled and humbled along, avoiding DNF-ing through pedantic pig-headedness. The introduction of the fantasy world, the dark Hinterland, and of Finch turned the book in it’s head in the space of a page, and it became a twisting, engaging, immersive plot. We’re told throughout the story that time works differently in the fairy tale world, and I felt like that was right. In the best possible way, the story turned on it’s head, world’s collided, and everything meshed to keep me gripped. And then, as suddenly as it started, it just stopped again. The ending was, for me, a damp squib that didn’t do the rest of the novel justice.
Whilst reading, it felt like the author was really invested in the fairy tale element. She understood the world and the characters and really believed in them and their story. The problem lay in the before and the after, I felt like she had done the bare minimum in terms of introducing the plot and closing the narrative. The juxtaposition between the slow start, and then the rapid pace of the middle 65% was jarring. The pacing issues throughout left a feeling of confusion once I had finished the book, and I couldn’t help but feel that the book itself was an (above) average telling of an absolutely extraordinary concept.
The world building throughout the book is fairly strong and immersive. The character building, however, falls a little short. We are introduced to a few passing characters throughout the story who sound fascinating and they just aren’t given enough time within the story. I understand that this is book #1 in a potential series, and that said characters may be explored further in later novels, but I wanted to know more about Ellery Finch, about Janet and most importantly, about the creator and author within the novel, Althea. Alice’s grandmother is mentioned throughout, her house eluded too, and her world and stories form the basis of the plot, so I was fairly disappointed that her character was not explored further than the most basic of information. She is really left as a bit player when she should be up front and centre, and her story is inadequately explored.
As good as the book is, and it is, I really did enjoy it and race through whole sections, I genuinely believe it would have been an all time favourite in the hands of more accomplished or experienced authors, and unfortunately feel that it fell a little short of it’s potential.