*I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a 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 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. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began . . .
I have mixed feelings about The Hazel Wood.
The first half seems to be a typical Young Adult coming of age setup: loner teen with a mysterious past trying to live a ‘normal life’. The background on her grandmother and the book-within-a-book of fairytales, Tales From the Hinterland, form an intriguing hook that I should have found utterly compelling.
Unfortunately I was hindered by the complete unlikeability of the two main characters, Alice and Finch. As the plot unfolds Alice’s anger and distrust become more understandable, but in the early chapters she seems to be unnecessarily prickly and unpleasant, making it hard to identify with her or engage in her struggles. Likewise, Finch really feels like he should be a lovable character, but the barriers he has in place against his fictional world seem to also act on the reader…bringing down the shutters on the ‘real’ character and presenting us (and Alice) with a shallow facade.
The strongest points of this book are definitely the fairy story elements, and my favourite moments are when Hinterland stories are retold, and when Alice has to face the Halfway Woods with the traditional three challenges they present, and the riddle to solve. At these points the writing is beautiful and haunting, and I just know that some of the stories and Stories (Katherine) will be visiting my dreams for a long time.
There are obvious comparisons to draw with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, but Melissa Albert actually references a very broad range of texts and tales, overtly and covertly, making a pleasurable treasure hunt for the alert and obsessive reader (guilty!). Also much like the older Alice, there are points when this story loses its coherence and takes on a dreamlike quality. Fairytales operate on rules, (youngest son/daughter; threes; kindness to elderly strangers and so on) but parts of Alice’s journey in the Hazel Wood and the Hinterland seem to drift from these rules and at these points the plot seems to briefly lose its way amongst dark and unfamiliar trees.
Overall this is a gripping read for teens, young adults and adults who like their fairytales dark and disturbing.
When Alice was born, her eyes were black from end to end, and the midwife didn’t stay long enough to wash her.
– Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood