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If you’re in the mood for dark, atmospheric fantasy this winter, look no further than Melissa Albert’s The Night Country.[Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.]
After a literally death-defying trek through the Hinterland in The Hazel Wood, Alice Proserpine returns to New York City a different person and an ex-Story, which is the name given to those who manage to break the cycle of the fairytales in which they exist for eternity. The first book in Albert’s series has occupied a large corner of my mind since I read it in 2018, and now, the second book has nestled in snug beside it.
It’s been two years since Alice left the Hinterland behind, though of course, that isn’t entirely possible since she is of the Hinterland, a bone in its skeleton and a cog in its machine. In The Night Country, she attempts to lead a normal life free from the “Bad Luck” that’s followed her and her surrogate mother, Ella, since Alice was a kid. But when a murderer begins targeting Hinterland survivors and all the clues point to one ex-Story in particular, Alice gets sucked back into the world she’s tried so hard to leave behind, even if the place itself is long gone.
Meanwhile, Ellery Finch is still in the slowly-fading Hinterland, and things are equally complicated on his end, but in an entirely different way. As he and Alice slowly make their way back to each other, Finch is faced with a series of decisions that will change his life forever and greatly affect the world at large — not to mention all the other worlds that exist alongside it.
Albert is at the top of her game here. Her writing is as biting and melodic as it was in The Hazel Wood, but with an added ounce of oomph that makes each moment — big or small — crawl beneath your skin and stay there, parasitic and cozy. The pop culture references that littered the first book are still present, but utilized more effectively this time around, and the trajectory of the mystery is clearer and more concise. There is an element of predictability here that’s hard to shake, but the fact is, the “what” of the plot is so much less impactful than the “how” and the “why” — both of which Albert answers well by the end of the book, though the pacing toward the end is just rushed enough to earn The Night Country a solid 4.5 stars, rather than a full 5.
Falling into this book felt like collapsing onto a thin, damp cloud, aware that it could break any moment and send you plummeting toward earth but trusting Albert to keep you afloat, even when things are especially dire. At several points, it feels like she is about to destroy that gossamer foundation, and the intensity of the feeling stretches all the way through the story’s conclusion.
Alice’s narration gets particularly unreliable here, even moreso than it was in The Hazel Wood, which makes her journey all the more agonizing. That’s especially true once she starts to put the pieces together regarding the Hinterland, the other ex-Stories, the violence she can’t seem to escape, and of course, Finch. As the details unfold, the reader is carried through a vacillating series of emotions and realizations that are at times hard to swallow, but increase the stakes in believable ways and build out the world Albert has so painstakingly created.
The Night Country has mystery and unconventional romance and dark, disturbing, fantastical horror that plays tricks on the characters as well as the reader. The way this book unfolds feels personal in a way I cannot articulate, except to say that it opens its maw and swallows you whole, immersing you fully in the Hinterland and its cast of creatures, many of which care not for whether you’re ready to get so attached, so fast.
If you enjoyed The Hazel Wood, you’d absolutely be remiss not to pick this up. If you haven’t yet read The Hazel Wood, I highly recommend you pick up both and spend the weekend under your covers, emerging for snacks and hot tea and some grounding now and then. Albert is one of the brightest, fastest rising stars in young adult fiction, and her work is simply too good to miss.
To grab a copy of The Night Country, click here.
Overall rating: ★★★★½
Recommended for: Fans of dark fantasy who are interested in unpacking unreliable narration, fans of unconventional romance, and anyone who enjoys a good mystery with a tinge of horror