Published: 30 January 2018
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Category: Fantasy (Fairy Tales)/Young Adult/Mystery
Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic 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 Hinterland, 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.”
Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.
Rating: 5 Stars
In an equally fantastical and horrifying debut, Melissa Albert spins a tale that will remind all its readers why you should never, ever trust fairy stories.
As much as the fairy tale ideal has been fed to us growing up (thanks a lot DISNEY!), if you go back to the source material for 99.9% of these stories, none of them end well. Or start well really. There might be some good stuff in the middle, but really, it’s all darkness and twisty motives and death. Lots of that.
And I am HERE FOR IT.
Because they’re good stories. Not everyone is good and that’s the truth. Melissa Albert delivers on this with her story about Alice, her mother Ella, and the “legacy” they’re given by Althea, Alice’s grandmother and the writer of Tales from the Hinterland, a collection of fairy tales that embrace the Gothic darkness of bygone years and made her enough money to retire from the world on her estate the Hazel Wood.
Alice has been on the run from bad luck her entire life. She and her mother, no matter where they are, find themselves chased away by something. Their apartment floods. A wild cat gets in and destroys the trailer. A burglar ransacks the place but takes nothing. Weird things. Bad luck things. Relying on the kindness of others and never staying long, Alice doesn’t seem to mind this vagabond existence much because she has Ella and together, more sisters than parent/child, they have their own world, whether it’s an apartment or the front seat of an old car.
Life seems to settle down, allowing Ella to possible have a life including marriage, when a letter arrives announcing Althea’s death. Maybe the bad luck is gone. Maybe…
However, after a spat of seemingly random incidents, including the reappearance of the man that kidnapped her for a day when she was six years old, claiming to be a fan taking her to see her grandmother, Alice comes home to find her mother gone, taken by the creatures her grandmother made her name writing about. Fleeing the apartment of her stepfather, she runs to the one person who knows anything about the Hinterland, a classmate named Ellery Finch. Together they set off to find out what happened to Ella, what happened to Althea, and how much of the Hinterland is, at its core, real.
I think one of the most terrifying, underlying stories going on at the beginning of The Hazel Wood is not so much how Ella has kept Alice from Althea and from her book. There could be bad blood, some terrible falling out, okay. It was how Alice could find next to nothing about Tales from the Hinterland and when she did, any mention of it vanished upon closer inspection or when she went back for a second look. Even Ellery Finch has a creepy story to tell in this vein, of a book he barely managed to procure and that was then absurdly stolen from him. There does turn out to be an explanation, oddly enough that makes sense, but even then it’s like an art house horror movie plot line that was underlining Alice’s whole life. That kind of crafting, to keep up the eeriness, was impressive.
Albert keeps her mysterious writing up as we follow Alice on her quest to at first find out answers about her mother and then about herself. While the answers are sometimes slow to come about, you find yourself getting clues to the resolution of other threads so there’s never a moment when you’re short of action in one way or another. I read this book over the course of twenty-four hours because I simply had to know what happened next.
There’s a large case of characters in this story and on multiple levels of the story: the characters of The Hazel Wood and those of Tales from the Hinterland. A fine line divides the two and in ways I didn’t always expect. Some of my favorites were:
- The man that kidnaps Alice as a child. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but bear with me. He means so much more to the overall plot than a reason for Ella to keep Alice moving so the crazy fans of Althea won’t find them.
- The Spinner. She’s a cruel Arachne sort of character that was one of the definitive characters proving that you shouldn’t trust fairy tale characters. Alice broke this rule a few times in the course of the book, sure, but this was one case where she really should have been watching her back. But then how would things have turned out? It bears thinking about: if the bad things hadn’t happened, would Alice have known enough to be able to create the ending she has at the close?
- Ellery Finch. This might be a bit of an unpopular opinion. He’s not as well developed a character as I normally like, nor is as strong a presence as you’d think, given how much help he’s meant to be to Alice, but I feel like he speaks to the readers that see themselves in stories. The ones that have wanted find themselves opening doors to other worlds or saying the right spell to tumble down a rabbit hole, no matter the consequence. His love of Tales from the Hinterland is not just a fan of fairy stories, it’s a love of reading, of losing yourself in the world of words.
- Janet. She was quite possibly the most level headed person in the book. A woman from our world who, like Ellery, was fascinated by fairy stories, she took up field work when she found out that they were real and found herself in this world alongside Althea. When Althea betrayed her and left her behind, Janet became something of a guide for others that eventually found her way into the Hinterland when holes were made by the story spreading thinner. She helped these refugees as best she could and made a life, ultimately helping Alice find the answer she needed through her connections.
There are reasons for why Alice has bad luck. Why Althea retreated to the Hazel Wood, why Ella disappears. What the Hinterland is all about and why they kidnap Ella. These mysteries, the finding of them, had many jaw dropping moments. There were threads that at times didn’t seem to be important, but then they came back and I was shocked that I didn’t see them before.
I can’t say what it is that makes Alice’s story so important in the end because to do so would destroy the mystery you’ll enjoy reading this book but let me end the review by saying this.
Stories are both dangerous in this book and they’re a salvation. Stories are what get Althea and Ella and Alice into their respective messes, but they end up saving in the end, whether it be as the trade of the plots of Harry Potter for food or as a new weaving for spark spiders, the power of words is evident throughout The Hazel Wood. It just matters who, and for what reason, that power is wielded.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.