The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood is due for release in February 2018 and is Melissa Albert’s debut novel. It is a dark fantasy story which focuses on a teenage girl as she provokes a mysterious organisation while trying to learn more about her reclusive grandmother. The book forms the first part of a planned series, though at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

Alice Crewe has never lived in any place for long. Whenever she and her mother, Ella, try to settle down, the bad luck soon finds them. However, things seem to change when they receive a strange letter that states Alice’s grandmother – the reclusive author of a book of faerie stories – has passed away in her remote home, the Hazel Wood. Although Alice does not really understand why, Ella announces that this is the end of their bad luck and they move to New York.

Time passes and it seems as though Ella is right. She marries a handsome and wealthy man and Alice settles into a structured life of school and part-time work. However, the bad luck doesn’t stay away for ever. After one particularly strange day, Alice returns home to find that her mother has disappeared and someone has left a torn page from her grandmother’s book on her pillow.

With the help of her friend, Ellery Finch, Alice tries to learn more about her grandmother’s book but soon learns that every aspect of it is shrouded in mystery. Copies of it are incredibly rare and those who have read the stories within seem reluctant to talk about them. It seems that to learn the truth and find Ella, Alice must find her way the Hazel Wood. However, this is the one place that her mother has always warned her never to go…

When I first read the blurb for The Hazel Wood, I was curious but unsure if I would ultimately enjoy the book. I must say that I am glad that I took that chance. I read a lot of books and find that it’s quite rare to find one that actually gives me the chills while reading it – one that I really can’t stop thinking about whenever I put the book down. I’m really pleased to say that The Hazel Wood is one of those books.

The story didn’t immediately hook me. The first few chapters jumped around a little as they set the scene and I wasn’t initially sure what the focus was supposed to be. However, as the bad luck caught up with Alice and she caught a glimpse of the strangely ageless man that had kidnapped her as a child, I found that I was absolutely hooked.

I don’t want to talk about the story too much for fear of spoiling it. The Hazel Wood is one of those books that I think you will enjoy more if you go into it knowing as little as possible, as its plot is an endlessly unravelling mystery that seems to grow more fantastical with each page turned. The atmosphere of the story is always deliciously dark – so much so that it gave me goosebumps on more than one occasion. To say that its like reading a faerie tale really gives the wrong impression. There is nothing twee about this story. It has more in common with Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber than a Disney film. There is certainly magic at work, but it comes at the price of blood and suffering.

The core mystery of The Hazel Wood really does keep the reader on their toes. As Alice and Finch begin to explore the secrets of Alice’s grandmother – reclusive author Althea Proserpine – and her single work of fiction, Tales of the Hinterland, things just get stranger and more eerie. The creepiest aspects of this novel are small and uncanny, such as an impossible photograph materialising between the pages of an antique book and the lack of online presence than such a cult novel appears to have. These little things quickly build up to keep the reader constantly on edge. I was endlessly curious to find out what would happen next, but also a little scared. We soon start to see that the Tales from the Hinterlands is often at the centre of terrible and frightening events, and so I was left constantly worried what price Alice would be forced to pay for the knowledge that she sought.

And, for all its tense build up, the novel did not disappoint. Its ultimate conclusion is more than a little surreal, but at the same time incredibly satisfying. Sorry for being vague, but I don’t want to spoil this for you in anyway. The climax offers a very apt examination of the power that stories hold, as well as their ability to both create and destroy. The final chapters tie up all of the loose ends very neatly, making the novel feel complete in its own right. In fact, it did such a good job of this that I did not initially realise that this was the first instalment of a planned series. I’m not sure where Albert intends to take this story in the sequel, as this book just felt perfect on its own.

The characters in The Hazel Wood are all also massively memorable. The main protagonists – Alice and Finch – are like chalk and cheese. Alice is fiery and strong willed, carrying with her an unexplained connection to her grandmother’s book, a deep love of stories and the bravery to hunt her mother to the ends of the Earth. Finch makes a very soothing contrast to this, being outwardly very easy-going, but he also hides some secrets of his own behind this cheerful mask. I found it very easy to like both of them yet, because of the way that the story was written, I was left in constant fear that everything would end badly for them.

Beyond the protagonists, the book was furnished with a whole host of other fantastical beings. While we only see glimpses of these characters and never really learn their full stories, what we do learn always feels like just enough. It explains who they are while still leaving a lot to the imagination, adding an air of mystery to them and making their behaviour unpredictable and frightening. From the vengeful horror of Twice-Killed Katherine to the faded beauty of Althea Proserpine, the characters are all very memorable and likely to stay with me for a long time.

All in all, I’m really glad that I decided to give The Hazel Wood a chance. It is one of the most original fantasy stories that I have read in a long time and I had difficulty putting it down. While I’m not convinced that the novel needs a sequel, I’m really curious to see what Albert has in store next. I would certainly recommend this to lovers of faerie stories and dark, urban fantasy.

The Hazel Wood is due for release on 8th February and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon.co.uk

3 Comments (+add yours?)

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