Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood

Format: E-book

Pages: 359

Series: The Hazel Wood #1

So many people recommended this book that I couldnโ€™t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity โ€“ and now here we are ๐Ÿ˜Š.

The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better โ€“ until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, itโ€™s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before itโ€™s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place โ€“ for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.

The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF. ย And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novelโ€™s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albertโ€™s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands โ€“ The Hazel Woodโ€™s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides โ€“ both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes โ€“ these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales โ€“ similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.

Those early pages of The Hazel Wood quickly drew me in; the unnamed ill luck hunting the protagonist and her mother through the States in a kaleidoscope of roads, motels, rented apartments; the strange spectre of Aliceโ€™s grandmother, the author of the infamous “Tales from the Hinterland,” who by all accounts should have been long forgotten but still enjoys a cult following; the teenage angst of the constantly angry, wary, misanthropic Alice, colouring her every relationship except one; her unique ย bond with her mother Ella, which seemed like a life-line for both of them, scared, scarred, and lost in the wide world. Truth be told, there is not a whole, unbroken, hundred percent โ€œnormalโ€ person in the novel โ€“ everybody seems to have some sort of a wound, a flaw, a secret, some curious incompatibility with the wider world. Their fragile worldviews and hesitant, anxious relationships they form with others are a big part of the bookโ€™s allure โ€“ if youโ€™re expecting a usual YA fare, you might be in for a hefty surprise.

Where the first part came along with laudable smoothness, the language lush and sharp and enviably assured, wonderfully building tension and a pervasive feeling of unnamed, unknown threat, the second part somehow disappointingly petered out to an underwhelming finale. I find itโ€™s a common failing of those UF novels which try to reconcile the modern world of everyday life with the Faerie in its dazzling multitude of hues and forms; where the descriptions of our world are vibrant and intriguing and convincing, the Faerie โ€“ Hinterland, in the case of The Hazel Wood โ€“ comes off pale and flimsy in comparison, more of a by-the-numbers play than something truly original and gripping. The plight of the characters weโ€™ve come to care for throughout the first part suddenly becomes perfunctory, the previous urgency lost among the lengthy descriptions of the fantasy world. As a result, the protagonistsโ€™ movements in Hinterland come off as half-automatic, bereft of agency and unavoidable not due to the machinations of the all-powerful Spinner, but, to the detriment of the story – made to fit the needs of the even more-powerful author. Thereโ€™s an intriguing correlation between the two personages, by the way ๐Ÿ˜‰.

Some of the authorโ€™s choices seemed to be directly responsible for the sudden loss of direction and purpose: the inevitable trajectory of fairy-tales was an intriguing concept, but sadly remained underdeveloped, serving only to further the idea that the characters of the Hinterland fairy tales suffered from the rigid limitations of their particular stories. And yet, there was plenty of inconsistencies both within and without Hinterland, undermining the overarching logic of the created world and resulting in an ultimately imperfect experience โ€“ at least for me. As much as I can understand the fellow bloggersโ€™ delight in this story, I must say that I cannot share their full enjoyment. The Hazel Wood was for me an intriguing, at times darkly wonderful, but ultimately flawed reading experience. I enjoyed the many twists and subversions of the genre tropes, I admired the precise, cutting yet poetic language and imagination of the first part of the book โ€“ but in the end, after such sumptuous, fascinating beginnings, my delight in the story was marred by the conclusion, which felt underdeveloped and somewhat uninspiring. Iโ€™m not sure if Iโ€™m going to read the sequel to The Hazel Wood, The Night Country. My TBR is overflowing, thanks to you all ๐Ÿ˜‰, and The Hazel Wood works well enough as a stand-alone for me not to feel compelled to read any further. One thing is certain: The Hazel Wood is a formidable – and admirable – debut, and the author Melissa Albert’s name is undoubtedly worth noting.

Score: 7/10

This is our last entry in this year’s Wyrd & Wonder!

ww2020

38 thoughts on “Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

  1. I agree about the unevenness. I also decided not to read the second book, but that’s because the story didn’t work for me and I didn’t like the protag. I was more interested in the fairytales, more interested in the stories that are from the Tales from the Hinterland book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently the stories are going to be published separately. But I think they worked well in the context on the novel; I’m not so sure they will work so well on their own. Albert made them into more than they can be with the in-story cult following, war reporting catchphrase, feminist perspectives and what not.
      I really liked the first part of the story. The second was meh. Not bad, I’ve read worse this year ;), but just disappointing.
      On a positive note, I’m currently reading Race the Sands and I’m really enjoying it! ๐Ÿ˜€

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  2. I’m inclined to read this because you’ve absolutely sold the first half of the book to me! And if I go in knowing that the second half is not as good, that’s all to the good. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d really enjoy this book! ๐Ÿ˜€ Can’t wait to read your thoughts on it, it seems to be a surprisingly divisive book but I have a feeling you’d be in the more enthusiastic faction ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  3. Some unevenness is to be expected in a debut work, but I feel bothered by your comment about the author’s personality intruding in the story: I often read about writers saying that they let characters and stories speak through them, and it seems to me that this is the best way to let a story grow in the direction it’s meant to. And from your description it does not seem to be what happened here…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel that the authors’ personalities always can be glimpsed through the book’s characters and premise. The problem here is that the characters at some point seem to lose their agency (exhibited earlier) and start acting as set pieces in the author’s plan. The change is pronounced all the more for the fact that earlier parts were so seamless. I still think it was beautifully written, at least the first part – and I think my disappointment with the conclusion was all the more bitter for it ๐Ÿ˜‰ And yet I think you can enjoy this book, Maddalena, despite my misgivings!

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      1. That an author’s personality has to come across in their work is a given, while the characters must maintain their autonomy, their own… life – for want of a better word. Still, a beautifully written book deserves a chance, and keeping in mind this is a debut work and therefore deserving of some latitude, I might indeed try it out for myself.
        Thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

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        1. I can only say I was mesmerized by the first part; and while the second did not maintain the cutting whimsical darkness of the beginning, I’d still recommend this book – if just for the pleasure of reading said first part ๐Ÿ˜Š So if I can convince you to give it a try without setting your expectations too high, my work is done! ๐Ÿ˜„

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  4. 7/10 is not a bad score, knowing your critical standards, Ola, so I mightn’t despite your caveats pass up on this if it comes my way! Mind you I’ve got at least two or three novels similar to this scenario trying to grab my attention…

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    1. I think you could enjoy this, Chris – and you are right, 7/10 from me, the harsh critic, is not bad at all! ๐Ÿ˜€ I spent a lot of time on the critique, but it was mostly due to the disappointment resulting from the very promising beginnings. This one defies expectations at the start, but later inexplicably starts to conform to all the tropes, which makes the disappointment all the more acute. And yet, it does defy expectations at the beginning, in a beautiful, sharp prose that grips you and invites you in. I think it’s worth reading even for these first chapters ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  5. buriedinprint

    Sounds like we had similar responses to this one. I really loved the first third-to-half though. And I found the cover strangely mesmerizing for such a simple image really. I wasn’t tempted to buy the second book but, if I was looking for a light read, and it was sitting there on a library shelf, I might snatch it up in the right kind of mood. As Chris says, ‘7’ is not so terrible. LOL

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    1. 7 is totally not terrible, it’s actually pretty decent ๐Ÿ˜€
      The first part was really impressive and I was hoping the whole book would be as good. I think that’s why I was so disappointed, really – if the whole book was so bland I’d probably give it 6/10 and not be bothered much; but here the beginning was such a promise I was pretty sure I have an 8/10 or even 9/10 in my hands ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

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      1. buriedinprint

        Have you read Hiromi Goto’s Half World? Another story ostensibly about teens which does not take the turn that this book does. I’m trying to avoid spoilers about The Hazel Wood, so I’ll just say that I feel like a relationship comes to have the prominence in this story that I wish other plot elements had continued to have instead. So that the worldbuilding could have continued to grow and solidify. Not uncommon, this thing that happens instead. More uncommon to find writers who choose to focus on other story elements. (Which I say as a reader who loves that turn in plot too, but not at the expense of the story as a whole.)

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        1. I haven’t, but I’m currently reading A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge and it’s similarly set around a pair of teenagers but thankfully not so intent on playing with relationship tropes as The Hazel Wood. Yes, I’m with you on this. I felt that the focus on tropes and subversion of tropes and confirmation of other tropes centered around relationships negatively impacted both the worldbuilding and character development in Hazel Wood. A pity, it had the makings of something unique.

          I’ll definitely take a look at Half World, thanks for the recommendation! ๐Ÿ˜Š

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  6. This was an amazing review! This book is not exactly my cup of tea, and I don’t think I would ever read it, to be honest (but I am sad that you didn’t love it all!) because there are a lot of things that just don’t do it for me, but I enjoyed reading your review a lot!

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  7. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #123 – Book Jotter

  8. Excellent review as always, Ola. I love that you spotted that imperfection. That lack of balance that disturbs the unity of this tale. I do admit that when a YA novel becomes fairytale’ish, there’s somehow a better chance of it being good in the end hahaha I’m glad that this turned out pretty decent though.

    P.S. When’s the next 1-star review???? I definitely miss your fiery and flowery insults!!! ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you as always, Lashaan ๐Ÿ˜€
      Curiously enough, I saw The Hazel Wood marketed as adult fantasy; possibly because of the dark tone and, frankly, more subtlety and subversion of tropes than is usual in YA. And yet it had a strong YA feel to me – especially in the second part, in which certain themes were treated with a more cavalier approach: less focus and dedication and more “let’s get it over with and don’t ask how because you’ll spoil it” than I’d like ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Hahaha thanks, I guess ๐Ÿ˜€ Not sure about 1-star review, I believe I’m a bit less masochistic than you and avoid pain when I can ๐Ÿ˜› But there’s a 10 star review coming! ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

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        1. The 1-star reviews are a necessity, Lashaan – once I powered through the reviewed atrocity in blood, sweat and tears, I need to unburden!!! It’s like a therapy… ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ

          YES! ๐Ÿ˜€ Oh, I loved this book!

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  9. piotrek

    Ok, that sounds like a bit too much for me. Interesting, but I was similarly disappointed by the uncanny parts of such books and it is a big killjoy for me…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is curious, isn’t it; as if there’s not enough imagination on the author’s part – or too much on the readers’ part ๐Ÿ˜‰ these parts just seem to fall flat, mindlessly repeating the tropes while frantically trying to create a feeling of magical, uncanny and unique – without success. Ah, well. I’m sure someone will get it right eventually ๐Ÿ˜

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        1. Yeah, your sentence nicely sums up the experience! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Great premise, but a bit more work on the plot and character development would be more than welcome to turn The Hazel Wood into something truly remarkable ๐Ÿ™‚

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  10. Pingback: Quest Log The Last: until the next time

    1. …and you’ve got your expectations lowered a bit for a start ๐Ÿ˜‰ The beginning is great; the rest – not living up to the promise of that strong start, but still not bad ๐Ÿ˜‰ And besides, you did enjoy Nevernight more than I did ๐Ÿ˜€

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  11. An interesting review, and useful. Thanks to your mention of using an ebook from the library, I checked out our service, and discovered we have BorrowBox. So I’ve just downloaded The Hazel Wood!

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  12. I think I enjoyed this more than you did – I particularly loved the writing, interesting point about the different feel in the second half, I hadn’t thought about it but I can see your point. I would still like to read the second book though.
    Lynn ๐Ÿ˜€

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    1. I loved the first part, and was very impressed with the writing. I read the beginning chapters and was hooked, the story smoothly mixing thriller, mystery and paranormal. The second half simply didn’t live up to my expectations set so highly by the first ๐Ÿ˜‰ but still, 7/10 is a pretty good score for me! ๐Ÿ˜

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