Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood is a young adult fantasy novel that twines familiar tropes of fairy tales and fantasies–princesses, magical objects, challenges, quests, and magic into something entirely new, exciting, and deeply dangerous. It is a thrilling, inventive, and highly original fantasy that takes place in the here and now.
Alice and her mother, Ella, have lived their lives on the road, moving once or twice a year, sleeping in cars, borrowed houses, and cheap motels, seemingly trailed by bad luck that always seems to find them with terrible consequences for people and places around them. However, shortly after learning that Althea, Ella’s mother died, Ella got married to a wealthy man and now Alice is living in a fancy upscale apartment with a stepsister named Audrey who is the same age. Things should be looking up, but then one day she sees a man who she is certain is the same man who kidnapped her years ago, claiming he was taking her to see her grandmother.
Alice’s grandmother was a famous author who wrote “Tales from the Hinterland” an electrifyingly original collection of fairy tales, grim and reportorial stories of magical beings that are scary and horrifying. Something happened in the past that drove Ella to take Alice on the road, on the run from her mother, so that Alice has no memory of ever knowing her. She’s also never read her mother’s famous book, a book that is oddly impossible to find, even with e-bay.
However, things seem to be coming to a head with the reappearance of her abductor who seems to have aged not at all, with cryptic clues in the form of pages torn from her grandmother’s book, and with a new friendship with Ellery Finch, a classmate who has read Althea’s books.
I loved The Hazel Wood. From the first page, I was enthralled, at first by what seemed a coming-of-age story of a unique and self-aware young woman whose life experiences are different from most–a traveling life of a reader. More than the events that happened, she remembers the places she lived by the books she read. I can see that.
I like how the magical elements of the story were slowly revealed, what seems coincidence crystallizing into magical interference. We are not thrust into the fantasy immediately. Alice has lived an unusual life, but there’s no reason to see anything fantastical. Lots of kids have grown up with peripatetic parents who drag them from school to school, living as perpetual “new kids” in school. She self-protective, prickly, a bit stand-offish and it all makes sense, she’s spent a lifetime losing friends. She feels rage and even that makes sense. We assume there must be some reason her mother fled with her.
And then when Alice has no choice but to go to her grandmother’s home and enter that magical world, it’s so new and different. Yes, the tropes of fairy tales are there, bits of verse with clues, anthropomorphic beasts, talking trees, and scary things. But it’s also beautiful and inhabited by other humans who have found their way there. It’s scary, deadly, terrifying and lovely, friendly, and somehow familiar and those contradictions are not the least bit false.
The Hazel Wood is completely original, utterly captivating, and puts its characters in real jeopardy so readers will feel real anxiety over the fate of its characters. There are no guarantees in this book and you can sense that from the first approaches toward the Hazel Wood. That uncertainty, not knowing what might happen in the end, makes this much much more thrilling.
I received an Advance Readers Copy of The Hazel Wood from the publisher through NetGalley.