Once I read the description for Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, I immediately requested an e-galley through Netgalley. They approved me, and I rejoiced: a dark fairytale set in modern day New York with a female protagonist is exactly the kind of young adult fantasy I love.
The Hazel Wood follows 17 year-old Alice as she struggles to work with one of her late grandmother’s superfans to follow clues toward the mysterious location of her kidnapped mother, Ella. Alice’s grandmother, who recently died alone at her estate, the Hazel Wood, is a renowned and reclusive fairytale author whose only book is all but impossible to find… and supposedly, set in an actual world full of unmitigated horrors. Ella’s captors claim to hail from the Hinterland, the setting of the book, and as Alice and her classmate Finch get closer to the truth, it rapidly becomes clear that everything Alice ever thought was true is absolute fantasy.
Prior to diving into my e-galley, I was nervous. Reviews of The Hazel Wood are incredibly mixed, and reviewers and bloggers whose taste I often share didn’t have much good to say about it. A few drew comparisons to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (one of my favorite books, still, nearly 18 years after I read it for the first time), arguing that the characters speak in riddles for no reason and the writing wasn’t engaging enough to make that work.
I devoured The Hazel Wood because I absolutely did not want to put it down. I loved the fast pace, high stakes, and ethereal quality of the timeline. Alice is so unreliable as a narrator, the full extent to which isn’t revealed until deep into the story, and her memories feed almost seamlessly into her present. This serves to establish the connection between Alice and Ella while also deeply contrasting it to the divide between Ella and her mother, and between Alice and her grandmother.
It also helps blur the line between fantasy and reality, story and truth, which Alice learns is a shaky difference at best. Even the characters she thinks she knows inside and out — both new to her life and old — turn out to have motivations and secrets of their own, well-hidden behind vague statements and moments of doubt. It isn’t just Alice’s grandmother who’s a storyweaver in The Hazel Wood, and that’s both detrimental and helpful to Alice’s quest.
Since I finished The Hazel Wood last week, I’ve thought about it frequently. It’s the first book I’ve read in months that kept me up well into the night, desperate to find out what happened next and loathe to reach the end all at the same time. I recently recommended it to a customer at work, and a co-worker, and my book club. I don’t know how many of those people will enjoy this book, or if any of them will enjoy it the way that I did, but I hope so.
I want to gush about it with fellow readers who loved it. If you’re reading this, and you’re one of those people, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter! I’d love to talk about The Hazel Wood with you.
Overall rating: ★★★★★
Recommended for: Fans of fairytales, fantasy, and Grimm-style horror