Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Narrator: Rebecca Soler
Running Time: 10 hours, 30 minutes
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Suicide, violence, blood and gore (PLEASE NOTE: Although I have not currently ascertained the need for any trigger warnings when it comes to this title, please inform me if have missed something and I will update this section)
Goodreads Summary: 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.
So here’s the deal, y’all: I really enjoyed The Hazel Wood, but I think it’s definitely an acquired taste. A mish-mash of thriller, magical realism, and fantasy, The Hazel Wood manages to simultaneously be magical and enchanting in its own right, while also being reminiscent of several other fantasy and magical realism books, namely The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy and The Darkest Part of the Forest, and the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke. The Hazel Wood takes the strangest and darkest elements of those books and twists them into a wholly unique and slightly disturbing tale all of its own. And I loved it. But it’s 100% not gonna be for everyone–or perhaps even for a majority of people. I’d say that if you enjoy linear narratives, meaningful stories, solid endings, and logic in general, then The Hazel Wood probably is not the book for you.
I usually start off reviews by discussing the characters of a book, but today I want to flip the script and begin by focusing on the overall story of The Hazel Wood. This book was interesting in that the main theme and story structure of The Hazel Wood parallels that of the book within The Hazel Wood—Tales from the Hinterland (which was written by our protagonist’s–Alice’s–grandmother, Althea). What I mean by that is this: In The Hazel Wood, one of the secondary characters, Finch, tells Alice that the stories within Tales from the Hinterland had no meaning or purpose, no “good” ending or “bad” ending, the stories just were. He remarks,
There are no lessons in [Tales from the Hinterland]. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic, where shitty things happen. And they don’t happen for a reason, or in threes, or in a way that looks like justice. They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.
In this way, Tales from the Hinterland and The Hazel Wood are incredibly similar. Both are strange and dark and have no rhyme or reason and when you get to the end, you kinda wonder what it was all for and if there was a lesson to be learned or even just a general point to be understood…and yet, it was all so wildly enchanting that you can’t seem to shake the world from your bones. It’s intriguing, but also kinda trippy.
I think the world and story of The Hazel Wood stuck with me in part due to Albert’s writing. Part blunt teenage grunge, part ethereal fairytale, Albert’s writing has a curiously otherworldly quality to it that immediately drew me in. I’m not sure if this is gonna make any sense, but reading The Hazel Wood was kinda like listening to a smoky blues song being sung by a soprano vocalist (i.e. a female singer with a high pitched voice). Entirely unearthly, in a hazy way (pun not intended).
So now let’s talk about the characters. Honestly, the only characters we get to see much of are Alice and Finch–and Finch wasn’t even in half of the book. I think Alice is gonna be hard for most people to get invested in. She’s got a real short fuse, constantly exploding into fury every other page. Granted, she does have a legitimate reason to be like that, but even still, from what I can tell from Goodreads, most people don’t like her. It is here that I want to pause to quickly talk about how uncomfortable people’s discussion of Alice’s character has made me. I have seen tons of reviewers bash on Alice because she isn’t a kind character–even going so far as to call her “abusive,” which is kind of a stretch in my opinion–but I’ve also seen those exact same reviewers turn around and five star The Cruel Prince by Holly Black and praise Prince Cardan–a character who is far crueler than Alice and who actually is physically and verbally abusive–as “complex” and “sympathetic” and even, yes, “swoonworthy.” The only major difference I can think of between Alice and Cardan is that Cardan is male and Alice is not. We talk, so much about how female characters should be complex, how they should go beyond stereotypes, how they shouldn’t have to be perfect or even likable to be recognized as good characters because women are people too…But the minute an author gives you a complex, non-typical character, who isn’t perfect or likable, but who certainly isn’t a bad person, you crucify that character…and raise up a male character who is far meaner and who is a literal abuser? That is the kind of “casual” sexism and misogyny that the literary community displays all the time and it makes my blood boil. Women shouldn’t have to be “likable” to be recognized as good people or as people deserving of having their story told.
Anyhow. Enough of my feminist ranting, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled content! We were talking about characters…
Other than Alice, the only character who gets a good amount of page time is Finch. Finch is a classmate of Alice’s and a super fan of Tales from the Hinterland. So naturally, when Alice’s mother is kidnapped and all signs point to The Hinterland, Alice begrudgingly enlists Finch to help her out. The thing is, I felt like Finch wasn’t very dimensional. Like, we only see the surface of his character. Albert would toss in random hints at Finch’s larger personality and his backstory from time to time, but then those things were glossed over and the story was moving on. And that’s a shame, because I feel like if Finch was fleshed out as more than just being only a “rabid fanboy,” he could’ve been an incredibly interesting and dynamic character.
The lack of side characters who interacted with Alice for long periods of time and the fact that Finch’s character was skimmed over also meant that The Hazel Wood lacked in compelling relationships, other than that of Alice and her mother. I should also mention that this book has no romance. That’s significant because the first half of the book hints that there could be something slowly blossoming between Alice and Finch, but any hope is totally crushed in the most random and out-of-place way by a single line at the end of the story. Alice also doesn’t interact with anyone long enough or in enough detail for us to see her forming meaningful relationships. Compelling relationships–not just the romantic kind, but also the platonic and the familial type–are an important part of stories for me, so the fact that they were largely absent from The Hazel Wood was definitely a downside for me.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Hazel Wood! Definitely not for everyone, but a solid hit with me. I’m really glad to see we’re getting a “Book 2” (although I don’t think we know yet whether it’ll be a direct sequel or a companion) as well as a short story bind-up of Tales From the Hinterland! I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s to come from this world!