The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert is a book that divides opinion. A quick glance over the reviews on Goodreads will tell you that. People seem it love it or hate it. It’s a New York Times bestseller, and I believe that it is going to be turned into a film, so the book is obviously hugely popular with some people. However, it also has a lot of bad reviews online. So, it was with a little trepidation and curiosity that I started reading this book, wondering how I would find it.
Alice, a seventeen-year-old girl, has spent her life on the road, travelling from one temporary home to another with her mother, dogged by bad luck and misfortune. But, when her grandmother, the author of a cult class book of dark fairy-tales, dies, things take a turn for the worse: her mother is kidnapped by a mysterious group that claims to be from her grandmother’s tales. As she battles to rescue her mother, Alice discovers secrets about her family that will rock her to her core.
Throughout the story of this book, we only really spend any serious amounts of time with two characters. Alice, our protagonist, and her friend, classmate, fairy-tale aficionado, and walking hipster cliché, Ellery Finch. Alice’s mother, Ella Proserpine, makes most of her appearances in the book through the form of Alice’s memories, taking up very little actual story time, despite her integral place in the plot. Personally, I feel it would have been good to see her and Alice’s bond in real time throughout the opening chapters. Instead, we rely on the book telling us they have a deep bond every time a memory pops into Alice’s head. Alice herself appears to be one of the most controversial aspects of this book, some hating her spiky, bitter personality, while others enjoy it, seeing it as a fresh breath of air away from the usually loveable protagonists of most YA fantasy. I quite liked Alice. She felt real and gritty to me. Her personality was understandable based on her life. Of course, she is fiercely independent and loyal to Ella; she’s been the only constant in her life.
Periodically, throughout the story, we are treated to a couple of the fairy-tales that Alice’s grandmother wrote, and these are one of the real highlights of this novel. Dark, deeply creepy and twisted, they make great stories on their own. I would genuinely enjoy a collection of these short stories away from this book. But more than that, they give us an insight and understand, as well as a sense of foreboding, about the mystical, fairy-tale kingdom of the Hinterland. Aside from this, one of the other things that Albert’s really achieved success with in this book is adding a sense of danger and horror. Especially in the earlier chapters, where Alice finds herself hounded by supernatural threats through New York city, and on her road trip north to find The Hazel Wood, her grandmother’s home and portal to the Hinterland.
Albert’s writing may have seeped this book with menace and foreboding, but unfortunately, in many other ways I found her prose lacking. It was longwinded and flowery, but that wasn’t my issue with it: I enjoy the writings of Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss, all of whom love their purple prose. My issue with it was the execution of her descriptions. They just didn’t paint wonderful, vivid images in my head. This was a particularly big problem when describing people. Her penchant for comparing the characters visually to real-world people irked, especially considering I didn’t know half of the people they were being compared to. In terms of setting, I also felt like we were rushed through the Hinterland. I had looked forward to immersing myself in the dark fairy-tale landscape it promised us, but instead we seemed to get a whirlwind tour. Never once getting the chance to soak up the magic of the setting, which was quite possibly my biggest disappointment with it.
All things considered, I am still not sure how I feel about this book. I don’t love it; I don’t hate it. It’s not a bad book, and I feel like the premise of it is top notch, I am just not sure the story and the writing quite managed to live up to this. I’d recommend this book for those who like dark retellings of fairy-tales. Fingers crossed you are one of the ones that seem to love it.