The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

I love that authors are exploring the avenues in which fairy tales are still relevant, as well as how they’ve changed along with us. But it’s tricky to do so, since the formula of someone from our world encountering creepy or weird things is easy to follow. There are dozens of examples to choose from, which ups the ante for how well that story needs to be told. Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood adds to that discourse.

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17-year-old Alice Proserpine’s family has a penchant for fairy tales, thanks to her grandmother’s bestselling collection of dark tales from the faraway Hinterland. But Alice’s life with her mother, Ella, is nothing like a fairy tale, because they’re always on the run from so-called bad luck. On top of that, Alice deals with anger issues and has trouble making friends. That is…until the day her mother mysteriously vanishes, and Alice must travel to the Hinterland, located inside her grandmother’s strange Hazel Wood, to rescue her.

I’m a sucker for stories where family members must be rescued from supernatural forces: “Labyrinth,” the Iron Fey series, “Spirited Away,” the list goes on. Albert takes her time establishing the connection between Alice and Ella, and they have a charming, dysfunctional chemistry between them, because they’re both frustrated and tired of running, with only each other to depend on. But then, when Ella gets taken, the circumstances of her kidnapping are not entirely clear, and not in a suspenseful sense.

That kind of fog lingers all over the book, sadly. We spend a lot of time getting to know Alice and her life in the real world, but we don’t get to the Hazel Wood itself until the halfway point. That’s not entirely a bad thing, since we do have some interesting adventures in the real world, but I feel like the rules and ways of the Hazel Wood needed to be brought up earlier.

Some characters feel unnecessary or just a little clumsily handled. Alice’s stepfamily, Harold and Audrey, kind of impede on what time could be spent bettering Ella and Alice’s relationship. There is also a strange red-haired man from Alice’s past who is built up to be this huge part of the Hazel Wood, but he doesn’t show up again till the bitter end.

Ellery Finch, a fairy tale fanboy who joins Alice’s quest, is probably the most clumsily handled. He’s supposed to be Alice’s partner and helper, but his fanboy-ness for the Hazel Wood tales came off as kind of oblivious and even a little creepy. There is a scene where Finch tells Alice that she talked in her sleep—that it was kind of cute. Now, at that point in the book, the two aren’t really that close, so for Finch to say that was a little off-putting.

Once we get to the Hazel Wood, the story belongs to just Alice, and whatever creepy characters inhabit this world (I won’t say why Finch isn’t with her here, except that it’s pretty convenient). This should have been a part of the book filled with creepy quests and bloodthirsty villains, but it winds up being another slog of exposition that I feel like we could have gotten earlier.

Again, I am not discrediting Albert’s creativity. When we do get snippets of the fairy tales, they are engrossing and wonderfully bleak: a story of a woman who literally turns to ice when she’s angry; a woman with a caged canary that kills people; a strange little girl who plays with paper dolls in the woods under her grandmother’s watch…these are wonderful tales that deserve their own book release. But I don’t think they reach the right potential with how the plot is set up.

There’s this cool idea of Alice receiving a bone, a feather, and a comb from the Hinterland, and the fact that the Hinterland is not a place, as much as it is the people living in the Hazel Wood. Alice and Finch meet a woman named Ness who went into the Hazel Wood and came out seven years older, and without a few marbles, if you catch my drift. And again, the notion of the redheaded man being a bigger part of Alice’s story than she thought…these things are largely forgotten in the latter half of the book. I thought at one point that Ness would have made a more interesting quest partner than Finch.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things that work in this book. The main problem is simply that it doesn’t take as much advantage of its setting and characters as it could have.

 

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