Book Review: THE HAZEL WOOD (2018) by Melissa Albert
I went way off the reserve with this one. YA Horror is at the top of my to-read list, but when I found this dark fantasy in the library and sifted through the pages, I knew I had to give it a shot, and let me tell you... I'm so glad I did.
Alice Proserpine and her mother Ella have always encountered bad luck. Bad luck that gets them moving from place to place for years on end. Everything changes when Alice is delivered news of her grandmother, Althea's death. Even though Alice had never met Althea, she's always been curious about the elusive book of dark fairytales she wrote decades ago, Tales from the Hinterland. Things only get weirder when Alice's mother gets kidnapped by characters from the Hinterland.
Alice has no choice but to travel to the Hinterland to find her mother with Ellery Finch, her classmate who happens to be a big fan of Althea Proserpine. Their gateway to the Hinterland? Her grandmother's secret house in the woods: The Hazel Wood.
Oh my gosh. The writing blew me away. Albert's prose is so inventive and lavish and descriptive and distinct. I can't say enough about the way this woman writes. It packed so much punch. It always surprised me and was an absolute delight to read.
I will warn you, though: Albert's writing is a bit of an acquired taste. Several reviewers on Goodreads complained about her writing being too descriptive. While I understand this criticism and agree that the descriptions became borderline strenuous in the last quarter of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed Albert's unconventional descriptions.
I need to make one thing absolutely clear: I'm in love with Ellery Finch. Seriously. I was absolutely enamored by him early on. Alert's introductory description of him painted a very vivid picture in my mind. His endearing personality only added to his allure. I just thought he was an absolute sweetheart, and I loved how protective he was of Alice.
As for Alice... this is an unpopular opinion, but I actually liked her. The general verdict on Goodreads is that Alice is unnecessarily mean-spirited, citing primarily the way she treated Finch. While I see where these opinions are coming from, I guess I... didn't care? I'm a big fan of unlikeable protagonists, so Alice's personality didn't take anything away for me. Reviewers seem to forget the reason Alice is like this. I can't say it here without spoiling the plot, but her behavior is somewhat justifiable.
I also sympathize with her. I would have anger issues too if a) bad things always happened for no seeming explanation and I had to keep moving every few months, b) my mom wouldn't let me read my grandma's fairytale book, and c) my mom got kidnapped. That being said, I thought Alice was a compelling protagonist.
I thoroughly enjoyed the plot. The further I read, the more dark and complicated it grew, which was a delightful surprise. Unfortunately, the train of logic kind of unraveled for me at the end. I understand that you can get away with resolving conflict by playing your "fairytale logic" card, but a couple of things tested my suspension of disbelief. I bought into the fairy tale logic for the most part, but I was still left scratching my head and asking, "Wait, but how does that work?"
There were also a couple of times that I didn't understand the decisions characters were making, particularly the villains. It's almost as if they needed to have a lapse in judgment so the good guys get ahead.
Readers from Goodreads feel as though the pacing was too slow in the beginning and too fast at the end. I will say that it took a little bit for the plot to get started. Albert also spent a long time explaining the backstory. I see where these criticisms are coming from, but I was so entranced by this backstory that I didn't mind the lengthy set-up.
I do wish Finch had shown up more in the second half of the book, though. His presence is the shining jewel of this book, and I missed having him around. We were introduced to a whole host of new characters in the last quarter or so of the book, so without the established relationship between Alice and Finch, I wasn't quite as compelled by the events that occurred later in the book.
My Rating (out of five):
* * * *
Despite this not being my normal cup of tea (or most others, it seemed!), I enjoyed this book immensely. I'm so glad I took a chance on a dark fantasy and look forward to reading the sequel to this book, The Night Country, in the near future.
If you're looking for something dark and trippy with mesmerizing prose, I highly recommend The Hazel Wood!