Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

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I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

Flatiron Books, 2018

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The verdict: Strange and captivating—as grim as advertised, and absolutely worth the ride.

I’ll be honest: The Hazel Wood hooked me on page one. Readers definitely have to know what they’re getting into here. Albert’s novel is not a fairy tale in any conventional sense, and the plot strays from the typical safety nets of “young adult.” Disclaimers aside, however, Melissa Albert delivers a deliciously refreshing fantasy adventure, managing powerful commentary of our age without feeling forceful or pedantic. It’s creepy and dark but still soft enough to swallow. The story molts a few times, widening the premise and pulling the reader into deeper and more dangerous territory. Well crafted and rewarding for readers who like to follow breadcrumbs and pick up hints, The Hazel Wood makes a worthy destination for those willing to take the journey.

Seventeen-year-old Alice has only known a life on the road with her mother, always outrunning an unpaid lease or long streak of bad luck. When her enigmatic grandmother Althea, the once-famous writer known for her rare and gruesome book of fairy tales, passes away, Alice’s life in New York takes further unwelcome turns. After her mom goes missing from her new husband’s high rise apartment, Alice’s only ally is her classmate Ellery Finch, a lonely, misfit rich kid who happens to be an obsessive cult-follower of her grandmother’s book. The story spirals inward as Alice pieces together each new clue, all with some connection to Althea’s fairy tales and her isolated estate, the Hazel Wood. The bad luck of earlier feels more and more like a curse, and what Alice finds at the Hazel Wood is far stranger than she could have ever imagined.

“Then I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic…They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.”

Notably, Albert has a sincere eye for story and shows patient, methodical craft. Like a modern Through the Looking-Glass (could that Alice be this character’s namesake?), The Hazel Wood plays with time and space, including some delightful quirks and turns. The narrative form intersperses some stories from Althea’s book as readers slowly uncover the origin and context of her bizarre tales. Lines between real and fictional become increasingly blurred as Alice moves forward in her search for her mother. At a certain point, I realized there are no rules in this novel. Nothing’s given, nothing’s expected, and I could take absolutely nothing for granted. This fact will sit better with some readers than with others, especially those who prefer the security of traveling with a roadmap. The last act of the book wanders pretty far from the beaten path, but somehow Albert sticks the landing. Most impressive are the fantastic themes on who writes our stories—and who tells them once written. Dark, eerie, and addicting, The Hazel Wood succeeds in fighting for our power to forge our own futures and voice our own identities. Recommended for lovers of fantasy and magical realism, especially readers willing to step outside their comfort zones.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Melissa Albert’s writing, or see more book reviews on this site.

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