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.
Did I pick up The Hazel Wood because my name is Hazel? Why, yes. Yes, I did. And I’m so glad for the name/title kismet that led me to pick it up because The Hazel Wood is the weirdest, most unique YA novel I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.
A Beguiling Portal Fantasy
The story tells the narrative of Alice, who sets off into a malevolent occult world to save her abducted mother from the vicious fairytale characters that her grandmother wrote about in her infamous but out-of-print dark fairy tale collection called Tales from the Hinterland. While this is not an Alice in Wonderland retelling, there are similarities, though I can’t say that fans of the classic will love this one just because of the parallels.
After all, The Hazel Wood is both whimsical and dark. I told you it was weird, right? That said, the writing is so enchanting and spellbinding. Melissa Albert’s words are some kind of beautiful sorcery that I’m completely jealous of as a writer. It doesn’t hurt that every chapter is accented with lovely hand-drawn illustrations and that the book cover is a gorgeous display on my bookshelf.
Regardless, I still would’ve liked The Hazel Wood because at its heart was a beautiful mother-daughter bond. To be honest, I really didn’t connect with Alice. I doubt I would’ve cared for her story if she wasn’t so desperate to be reunited with her mom, Ella. We really see how it’s been Alice and Ella against the world for the longest time and how Alice would go to hell and back for her mom, and their relationship, though incredibly flawed, was one of the things I admired about The Hazel Wood.
Fantastic, But With Faults
While I really enjoyed this fantastical debut, I did have several misgivings. For one, the pacing was off. It was sluggish in some parts and too fast near the end. Also, I found the “surprise twist” quite predictable. Because of the outlandish setting and awkward pace, The Hazel Wood became really confusing at times. There were random characters described that just felt unnecessary and while this makes it comparable to Carroll’s classic, I just found it distracting.
Even so, I was too fascinated to stop reading. While I wasn’t partial to Alice, I was very keen on the ally who helps her with her mission: Ellery Finch, resident hipster, fairytale fanboy. I think I was easily fond of him because he was obviously bookish, but I also like that he calls Alice out on her privilege (Finch is the only noted POC) and reckless anger.
Menacing Yet Luscious Fairytales
Finally, what makes The Hazel Wood truly striking is its zeal for fairytales. It makes a lot of references to some classic stories but also delivers some new ones. Though we get to read some of the tales from Alice’s grandmother’s book in The Hazel Wood, I absolutely wanted more of Tales from the Hinterland’s deliciously dark fairytales!!!! I’m so excited Melissa’s releasing a short story collection!
Mesmerizing and highly original, The Hazel Wood is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It won’t be for everyone, but if you like dark fairytales and bizarre otherworlds, definitely check this one out!