“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.” (via Goodreads)
Melissa Albert makes the reader work for a connection to Alice. And frankly, I don’t see a problem with never warming up to her. True antiheroes are rare in young adult fiction, especially first person antihero POV. Women antiheroes across any medium are just as rare. The audience is trained to if not like the main character then at least find something appealing about them, like an endearing quirk or a genius brain or rakishly tousled hair, etc. And when you break it down by gender, the reactions are even more divergent. Male antiheroes rake in praise for their dangerous behavior, but female antiheroes are often subject to debate about their likeability. No one has ever called Walter White a bitch, but all Annalise Keating has to do is exist and that word gets hurled from all corners. Point is, maybe we aren’t supposed to like Alice. Or, more specifically, maybe it doesn’t matter if we do or not.
Alice has more than a few charming qualities—she’s not all violence and viciousness, otherwise she’d be a villain—but those charms aren’t there to excuse or make up for her poor behavior. Same goes for the novel itself, for that matter. Albert’s novel, Althea’s fairy tales, and the fairy world they inspired are dark and forbidding. There are no happy endings in the Hinterlands or The Hazel Wood. Alice and Albert offer no sugar-coating or neat little bows. Consequences abound, but not so much resolutions.
Like with Alice, readers will either like or dislike The Hazel Wood. The very elements that will turn many people off—the glacial pace, the mercurial main character, the lack of resolution for some subplots and characters—will work for plenty of others. Other aspects, such as the relative lack of diversity (there’s only one POC and two queer characters in a sea of cis, able-bodied, white people) and some of the more insensitive words Albert puts in Alice’s mouth, are harder to swallow, even for me. But overall it’s a killer hook with an evocative setting and compelling if complicated characters…
To read the rest of my review of The Hazel Wood, head over to Tor.com.
When my mother, Ella, got the letter, a violent shudder ran through her. That was before she opened it. The envelope was creamy green, printed with her name and the address of the place we were staying. We’d arrived the night before, and I wondered how it found us.
She pulled an ivory letter opener from the table beside her, because we were house-sitting for the kind of people who kept bits of murdered elephants around for show. With shaking hands, she slit the envelope jaggedly through its middle. Her nail polish was so red it looked like she’d cut herself.
As she shook it out, the letter caught the light, so I could see blocks of black text through the back but couldn’t read them.
Ella made a sound I didn’t recognize, a gasp of complicated pain that cut my breath off clean. She held the paper so close to her face it colored her skin a faint celery green, her mouth moving as she read it through again, again. Then she crumpled the letter up and tossed it into the trash.
We weren’t supposed to smoke inside that place, a cramped apartment on New York’s Upper West Side that smelled like expensive French soap and wet Yorkies. But Ella pulled out a cigarette anyway, and lit it off an antique crystal lighter. She sucked in smoke like it was a milk shake, tapping the fingers of one hand against the heavy green stone she wore at the pulse of her throat.
“My mother’s dead,” she said on an exhale, and coughed.
Thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me a review copy.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.