The Hazel Wood is Melissa Albert’s debut novel, set to release in North America on January 30, 2018. It promises to be a mesmerizing and unique modern fairy tale that weaves together our own world with one far more fantastical, and far more sinister (Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader Copy of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review).
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.
I was really excited to receive an ARC of this book, as I had heard it described as a “kind of dark fairy tale goodness”, which sounded both intriguing and enjoyable. But after taking nearly two weeks (a very long read time for me) to push myself through this book, I think I can safely say that I was pretty disappointed by The Hazel Wood. The characters were surface-level and dull, the story not nearly as dark and brutal as promised, and the premise quite unoriginal.
Even if Albert hadn’t named her main character Alice, so much about The Hazel Wood screams Alice in Wonderland – except in this story, Wonderland is Hinterland, Alice is a pretty awful, annoying person, and the grand villain is called a Story Teller instead of a Queen. Alice begins by seeing characters from Hinterland – similarly to how Wonderland Alice sees the White Rabbit – and these characters slowly lead her to the Hinterland (in search of her mother). Once Alice has entered the Hinterland – similarly to when Wonderland Alice falls down the rabbit hole into Wonderland – she encounters a variety of goofy, sinister and quirky characters who guide her one her journey through the Hinterland – just as the residents of Wonderland, such as the Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the Mad Hatter, helped Wonderland Alice. Eventually, Alice confronts the Story Teller, the individual who controls the Hinterland – just as Wonderland Alice must confront the Queen of Hearts. I will, however, say that the presence of the Hinterland story fairytales, and Alice’s encounters and experiences with the story characters and the power of the Story Teller’s stories, felt quite fresh and original. Unfortunately, this section of the book was so short – only about 10% of the overall story – it was overshadowed by the overwhelming presence of Alice in Wonderland.
Building upon this discussion of blandness and of un-originality comes my personal complaint regarding the fact that the story not nearly as dark and brutal as promised. Perhaps this is my own fault for putting a tad bit too much faith into the hype behind this book, but I don’t think so. When even the publisher uses terms like “sinister”, “twisting”, and “dark” to describe a book, I expect a bit more ruthlessness and hatred from my villains. Instead, we got coldly detached lackeys who do a whole lot of nothing (except stand around like scary ghost-children from a bad horror movie), a main villain who only appears at the very end of the book, and is easily defeated, and a whole lot of “off-screen” scariness and death. Really, the only parts of this book that lived up to the hype were the Tales from the Hinterland fairy tales within the story, which were deliciously dark and creepy. Overall, the lack of the promised darkness really contributed to the lack luster vibe of The Hazel Wood.
Finally, moving on to the actual characters in this book, of which there are only really two that matter – Alice Crewe and Ellery Finch. Everybody else, including the Story Teller, really only make guest appearances, so it is difficult to talk about them in any sort of depth. Alice Crewe (or Proserpine, depending on her mood and what she needs from the person she’s giving her name to) is cold and bitchy – for most of the book, she is just this way “because”, without any sort of reason. And without the necessary depth and complexity to her character that needed to make these traits interesting, Alice’s attitude and treatment of those around her quickly becomes pretty insufferable. Ellery Finch is a super rich, super hipster teenage boy filled to the brim with angst and daddy problems. Seriously. The majority of his minor character building is related to his need to gaze off into space meaningfully, be mysterious about Tales from the Hinterland, and quote Shakespeare every few pages in order to reinforce that he is, in fact, a financially privileged hipster male. But the real problem here isn’t that Alice and Ellery are pretty insufferable – it is that these two are the only really valuable or memorable characters in the book. Alice’s mother, he stepfather and sister, grandmother, and pretty much everyone else she encounters (in our world or in the Hinterland) are pretty unremarkable, serving only as guides for Alice’s grand adventure of self-discovery. Which in itself isn’t totally problematic, except for the fact that Albert keeps trying to enforce that the reader should care about Alice’s missing mum, etc., but that’s impossible since I didn’t particularly care about her before she vanished.
Overall, The Hazel Wood was a spectacular disappointment. While I did enjoy the inclusion of the Tales from the Hinterland “retellings”, pretty much everything else was a let down for me. From the unoriginal story, to the lack of promised darkness, to the underwhelming characters, The Hazel Wood simply did not live up to expectations (2/5).