REVIEW: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages

Release date: 30 January 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

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 . . .

“You feel like you’re playing a part in a movie? Well, so do I. I feel like I’m playing a part in a movie where all the sets have burned down. And the script got erased. And the cameras have no film, and we’re in a haunted movie lot in the bad part of town.”

Every now and then, we get reminded that fairytales aren’t the sugar-sweet Disneyfied versions we’re fed as children. Oh, no. Remember Giambattista Basile’s Sleeping Beauty, where the princess dies after pricking her finger and her corpse is raped by the king? Or the original Snow White, where the wicked queen is forced to dance in hot iron shoes and dance until she falls down dead? The Hazel Wood isn’t that dark, thankfully, but it does take us back to the Grimm Brothers roots of all those “once upon a time”s. And it’s pretty grim.

There’s definitely a larger horror aspect to this book than I expected. The much-obsessed over Tales from the Hinterland, a book-within-a-book that’s going to become a real book next year, is like a even bloodier iteration of The Language of Thorns. For much of the story the atmosphere is a simmering creepiness threatening to spill over at any moment. Squeamish readers would do themselves a favour not reading this in the dark. With that in mind, it’s remarkable how well everything pans out by the end–plot threads tied up, mysteries explained sufficiently for a reader of average pickiness. Sure, the are a lot of magical elements that stay magical, but this is a fairytale. The mysteriousness works.

When I say that everything pans out by the end, though, I mean the end. You have to work through the first 80% of the book, some of it less exciting than preferred, to reach the payoff. There’s a noticeable shift in tone in the last 20%, which is where I’m guessing Albert decides that she’s cooked the suspense for long enough, and it’s time to take the dish out of the oven. That’s when the pace picks up dramatically and quite a few a-ha moments are lined up in quick succession. It’s also, unsurprisingly, the most enjoyable part of the book. I honestly don’t know how satisfying this payoff would be without the grinding buildup beforehand, but I suspect at least part of the “boring” 80% was necessary to achieve such a rewarding result.

Even so, The Hazel Wood would be better served taking Alice into the Hinterland much, much earlier. (This isn’t really a spoiler because Alice spends almost the entire novel looking for a way into the Hinterland.) The Hinterland is essentially an eerie, secretive other dimension home to the dark fairytales penned by Alice’s grandmother, so it’s not hard to see why it’s a lot more fascinating a setting than New York, where the novel spends most of its time. The many chapters spent wandering around with Ellery Finch feel like an extended prelude overstaying its welcome. This isn’t to rag on Ellery, but while he’s an alright character appropriately standoffish and enigmatic for the story’s tone, he ‘s simply not compelling enough to warrant the amount of screen-time dedicated exclusively to him and Alice.

Audrey’s a bright spot amidst the otherwise monotone chapters she occupies. While a minor character and a bit of an a-hole in all honesty, I was pleasantly surprised by how she turned up later on. Another little thing I noticed is the frequency of references. The book throws out a lot of these, especially at the start. In the space of a few pages, I counted name-drops of Lorrie Moore, Reiki therapy, the Stone Roses, and of course Jane Eyre. Melissa Albert knows her stuff, for sure.

Her stepsister may be the bright spot, but Alice herself is just bright. You’ll get no Final Girl here. Alice is self-aware and genre-aware, (mostly) trusting the right people and anticipating the deadly possibilities that other protagonists overlook. She comes into her own in the final 20% payoff, enough so to negate the plodding pacing and cement The Hazel Wood as a book worth reading. More power to twisted fairytales, and the heroines who triumph through them.

*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*

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