Review of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. Review copy provided by Netgalley.
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.
You should know by now, I don’t do scary. At all. I’m the kid that hid in the kitchen pantry during the scary parts of movies. So I was both excited and terrified to request The Hazel Wood, I actually wished for it on Netgalley thinking I wouldn’t get it. And then I did. So, I decided to give it a read. Going into The Hazel Wood I’d seen the hype, and the disappointment, and knew this book wasn’t going to be for everyone. All this said, The Hazel Wood surprised me in areas I didn’t anticipate.
First, I do want to say there are several Trigger Warnings in this book— I won’t be going into detail but it was something I didn’t see anyone talking about. It’s not until later in the book, but it definitely took me by surprise.
Now, as for the book… I have so many mixed feelings! It’s hard to decipher. I think there were elements I was so happy to see and feel, but then there were so many things that I didn’t enjoy and left a sour taste in my mouth.
What I absolutely loved about this book was the elements of magic mixed into the modern day world. That was done on point and in ways that made my heart sing. There is one scene in the beginning where Alice returns to her apartment and it’s so full of magic you can smell it. The level of intensity in this scene reminds me just what suspense is in prose, but sadly this moment is one of the few that has any build to it.
One thing I will say The Hazel Wood brings to the table is the ability to suspend your disbelief. That is what fairytales and fiction are about, what many are missing. It reminded me of one instance in Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi where you just have to accept the world for what it is, and that is such a special feeling. For me, I like it when a world doesn’t explain itself; in fact, I prefer it that way. As a reader I find exposition to get in the way of story because an author feels the need to tell us about the world or make the world believable, and The Hazel Wood just throws you to the wolves and says have fun with it. This was the biggest satisfaction during my read, that the world felt genuine and real, like I could spot a character out in the street and not miss a step. In my rambling margin notes I say something along the lines of it’s Stranger Things meets Alice in Wonderland, and it’s that level of belief in the world that makes The Hazel Wood hard for me to talk about.
“57% finished – shit just got real dark” That’s an actually note in my margin (well in my e-reader). And that’s why The Hazel Wood is so darn hard to review. It reaches a point where I felt like I was reading a completely different book. This is where the trigger warnings come into play. This is where I got lost and never really came back. I’m all for dark atmosphere and aesthetics, but this got too dark, too absurd, for me to follow. And there is a “story within a story” element going on later in The Hazel Wood, but it wasn’t earned. I guess that’s where I have a problem; the pay off isn’t worth trudging through the sloop of darkness and bogged-down characters with no development and jumpy plot twists to make it worth my while to read. If The Hazel Wood read more like the first half of the book, I would have bought it. Unfortunately, it meanders down a path I can’t follow, into a dark place that I don’t feel like exploring.
I think that’s about all I have to say on the subject. It had such high ambitions, but The Hazel Wood fell in on itself before realizing it and trying to dig itself out. I can’t recommend it; I don’t think I’ll remember it by the end of the year for any other reason besides giving me 75 pages of suspended disbelief before coming to a screeching halt.
Her Imperial Majesty,
The Literary Empress