Author: Melissa Albert
Genre: Teen, Young Adult Fantasy (contemporary setting)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Hazel Wood is a story about fairy tales. Yet these are not the fairy tales we know. There are no happily ever afters here. Sounds awesome right?! And it is...mostly. Well maybe it's more accurate to say the fairy tales themselves are fantastic. Too bad this is not a book of Hinterland fairy tales and is instead a story of a girl encountering the Hinterlands and some of it's stories are plopped into the middle of her story.
The concept of an alternate 'dimension' that is a fairy tale land is very close to that of the TV show "Once Upon a Time". That didn't bother me in the least as Melissa Albert takes the idea and runs in a different direction. Instead of using fairy tales we all know and love, she created a world called the Hinterlands and made up new stories with no happy endings. I'm sure Disney could reign them in like they did The Little Mermaid but they would loose something. My absolute favourite part of The Hazel Wood is that the fairy tales are so dark and foreboding. The book containing all the Hinterland fairy tales described in The Hazel Wood is one I am desperate to own. Too bad The Hazel Wood isn't this book that is sought after in our main story.
Long, for no reason
The Hazel Wood is not a long book. At ~368 pages, I'd say it's on par with the average fantasy teen book. I was surprised at one point that I was only halfway through the story as it felt like I had to be near the end; and yet I knew lots more probably happened. For some reason this is the slowest read ever. It just drags on and on. I have a few theories on why this is; I don't think it's any one thing. But what I do know is that I kept waiting for it to suck me in and have me flipping pages quickly. Not once did that ever happen which was a huge disappointment.
The Lead Gal
We are clearly supposed to feel sympathy at every turn for our leading gal and her sad life story. Except instead of inspiring sympathy in me she was just annoying. Yes, she's had a hard life. Yes, she's up against bad odds. Yes, she's been screwed over at every turn; but none of that makes her automatically endearing. A lot more thought and actual characterization is needed here in order for me to be on board with this girls thoughts and feelings. I felt the entire time like she was the vessel that was taking me on this story but not the reason why I was reading the story. She should have been the reason I cared (especially by the end) and so this changed how I felt about a lot of things that happen. With little empathy to give over to our cardboard cut-out of a lead gal I didn't really care what happened in the end and so it's impact was lost.
The Love Interest
Carrying on with poor characters, let's talk about the male love interest.
Here's what NOT to do in teenage fantasy story; don't introduce the lead guy as simply being unattractive. What does that even mean?! We all have different standards of attractive. So give me some details about him and maybe say something about our lead gal finding him average or boring; but to say unattractive is just insulting (to the fictional character and to the reader frankly).
To add insult to injury here the only other describer we get about this boy is that he is black. Um... okay; but that doesn't mean I have a picture in my head of what this guy looks like! It's like Albert thinks saying he's black means I will automatically have an image of what his guy must look like. It concerns me greatly that some minor characters got more description than our main guy. A skin colour is, of course, a descriptive element to a character, but it's far from being enough. And it concerns me that Albert thought skin colour might be enough of a description...
It's especially frustrating as this boy is the saving grace of The Hazel Wood! Without him near the beginning I may have given up. He gives the story some optimism and hope. And his way of loving the Hinterlands and being a 'fan boy' is just adorable. I loved every minute he was on the page. Too bad he's in maybe 30% of the book total. More of him might have actually saved us from the dreary main gal killing the pace. It couldn't have saved the book entirely but it would have maybe gotten it to the four star mark.
I must rant about this every second book I read. Or so it seems. Let me be blunt; if your character didn't have to work for it at all then it's probably too easy. Few things in life are easy, one random happenstance I'll accept (as one day my husband found a $100 bill in a parking lot, so it does happen) but having things just show up when needed is obnoxious and lazy writing. I would much prefer our lead gal having to work for the 'items' needed. Also then I might have been able to remember: a) what the items were, b) what their significant might be, c) cared about how they fit into the story. Instead Alberta has some guy leaving them behind for our lead gal. This lacks creativity and left me with no impression of what these items are or could become. It makes their use later in the story feel convenient. In this case convenience begets convenience.
Here is one place where Albert does a great job. The actual plot of The Hazel Wood is brilliant. I love everything about what happens in the story overall and if provided with a broad plot summary would have been crazy excited about this book. Even after reading the story, I still think the plot is amazing and really creative. The plot is the primary reason why this is a 3 star review and not a 2. It's hard to have a unique or creative idea in fantasy books these days and here is Albert with a (mostly) original idea. Too bad she butchers the characters, flow and feel of the story. It's a damn tragedy.
I wanted to love this book so much. I was so enamoured by the tales of the Hinterlands and their twisted, unexpected outcomes. So here's what would make this book amazing. Let Melissa Albert write the fairy tales (as those that were told in full were quite good) and then give the main story and have someone else write it. In the hands of Bardugo, Sanderson, Meyer, etc. this could be a top-notch world and story.
It really is sad that Albert isn't at the level of many other writers in the teen fantasy genre. I'm hopeful however, as this is a debut novel, that she can improve. I'll happily revisit the Hinterlands again in the future with the hope that it's less convenient, characters are fleshed out more and that the writing moves along at a better pace. I don't want to give up on the Hinterlands yet, as I feel there are more dark, creepy stories to enjoy. So I'll hold out hope that Melissa Albert is just too new on the scene to have found the right voice for her brilliant ideas.
Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.