I finished reading The Hazel Wood at 5.30 am, this morning. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew how it would finish, because I honestly couldn’t predict it. The characters of this book could have ended up in a good place, bad place or just have an open ending on any given place in the spectrum. There is a second book announced for 2019, but Melissa Albert has written The Hazel Wood as a standalone. I am really curious about what the second book will do, knowing how this one ends, but I’m absolutely psyched about the next bit of news. Melissa Albert is doing Althea’s Tales from the Hinterland! Once you’ve read this book, you’ll know why that is so very exciting! The dark and twisted fairytales were the best part of the book and they did not have all that much room to be explored.
I first found The Hazel Wood when looking for new releases in january. It sounded very interesting. Twisting, dark fairytales and classic portal fantasy filled to the brim with secrets and background story. It sounded like this book was written for me, and I have to admit that I still felt that way when I was reading it. I read it in Dutch because I received the ARC, which I don’t normally do for books I really want to read. I buy them in English, because when I read a Dutch translation I can often see what the original sentence has been. It annoys me a lot. But I must salute translator Merel Leene here, because she did an amazing job. Never once did I feel like I was reading a translation.
The Hazel Wood drew me in immediately, and it has kept my attention through every twist and turn. (Alright, it waned a little bit in the middle.) The book is positively PACKED with story. I still can’t believe Melissa Albert managed to put the entire winding tale in there, because so much is happening and it is never rushed. I read a few reviews that hated how long it takes Alice to actually get to the Hinterland, but I liked the build-up. Exploring the Hinterland I was left wanting more in a good way: I am looking forward to more books on it and the other worlds Melissa Albert promised us. The Hazel Wood almost functions as a prequel in that regard.
Alice and her mother Ella are fully realised characters but they remain hard to grasp. This is exact the feeling you should have (in my opinion), because they are two people who keep slipping through the cracks of our world. Always on the margins, and always moving. Because of who they are, it should be quite impossible for real world people to understand them and their motives. I liked the slow and careful way in which their background stories are revealed, allowing both to become more layered and complex. Even though Ella isn’t much on the page, I have a retrograde respect for her badass-ery.
Where the story could have used a bit more padding is with the characters that escaped from the HInterland, but while I’m writing that down, I find myself reconsidering. They are stories, tales. They are meant to be what they are: one-dimensional and one-directional. I want more story from them, and it’s a bit frustrating, but that is exactly the feeling that fans of Althea’s fairy tales have. I wonder if Melissa Albert did this on purpose, or if this is merely a lucky function of The Hazel Wood‘s set up.
In the character of Finch, though, we really could have used more. He is a superfan, and doesn’t really move far beyond that (only in the final chapters). He does do some interesting things that hint to a richer inner life, but due to the limited space of the novel (even though it’s +300 pages) we don’t get to explore any of it. It keeps his character flat, and I would have liked to see more of his motives and struggle. Finch’ and Alice’s conversations were also prone to be teen angsty, and about halfway through the book I had had enough of that. Luckily, the story picked up from there, but just a tad too late.
Some things did annoy me in their execution. Although I liked the careful way the story unwinds, I think we should have spent more time exploring the Hinterland. There is just too much weird that didn’t get explained or explored. If this really was a standalone, it would have to end there and that would have been a shame. Some fairy tale motifs that were deliberately put in also didn’t work. The author relies heavily on the “feather, comb, bone” (classic helper items), that are used in a single sentence just to make sure we realise we transitioned into fairy tale land. Not exactly deep, involved writing – a gimmick that we spend too much time focusing on with such little pay-off. And lastly, I was very annoyed by the “it finds you when it wants you to find it”. It’s a lazy writer’s trick when you don’t know how to fix a problem you created and it comes across as such.
I always end on the negative and then in the last paragraphs tell you to read it anyway.. But I really do consider The Hazel Wood a must read for YA fans who love fantasy and fairy tales. It’s a rich story, beautifully written, with compelling characters and a unique storyline. It feels as if you know where this story is going to go, but then we never really do and it follows its own path. I love it when a book deviates fom the beaten path. Yes, it could have explored some of its awesome parts more (final chapters in which Alice breaks loose with the help of a weathered Finch, for example). But it also very much stimulates your own imagination, trying to fill in the gaps. Just like actual fairy tales do, giving you the bare bones of a story repeated through the ages.
The way this story is laid out – the subtle wrongness of both the main story and the fairy tales – shines through in everything. I really hope that when we go back to the world of The Hazel Wood, we also see a bit more of its lightness. The way Melissa Albert has written her ending, it makes me wonder what the premise of the second one is going to be. You’ll understand when you read The Hazel Wood, and I strongly suggest that you do!