Published January 30, 2018, by Flatiron Books
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy / YA
Page Count: 368
Look until the leaves turn red…
“Once upon a time…” It’s how so many fairy tales start. Then you go on to read about princesses and castles, dragons and unicorns, true love and happily-ever-afters. Those are the stories that taught me to believe in magic, in good triumphing over evil, and in happy endings.
It wasn’t until later that I learned about evil that seeps into the world outside of the pages of those fairy tale books. Evil that can’t be contained by a chivalrous knight or by a magic spell. Unexplainable things that occur even when you’re not reading, so you can’t just close the book and put it back on the shelf to make the monsters stop scaring you or make the bad things freeze in their tracks.
So what can you do when fairy tale evil follows you into the real world? Apparently, if you’re Alice Proserpine and her mother, Ella, you run.
Sew the worlds up with thread…
That’s what they had been doing all of Alice’s seventeen years – running from state to state, city to city, new life to new life. Though Alice thought they were just moving around to find a place where they fit; a place where their string of “bad luck” wouldn’t continue to follow them. Maybe finally moving to the place she’d longed to be for as long as she could remember: The Hazel Wood. Her grandmother was there – renowned fairy tale writer, Althea Proserpine, and Alice knew one day she’d meet this enigmatic woman who’d written a book that had made her famous (infamous?).
It wasn’t until Ella is abducted that Alice begins to see her world as it really is, and she realizes that she’ll have to leave everything she knows behind in order to retrieve Ella from a place where normal rules don’t apply. Accompanied by Ellery Finch, Althea Proserpine super fan and Alice’s only friend from school, she sets out to find the Hazel Wood, her mother, and, hopefully, all the answers to questions that she’s held close for so many years.
If your journey’s left undone…
I’ll pause here and say that I HATE unexpected spoilers. I love to let the story unfold on its own and be naturally either surprised or disappointed at the outcome. That’s why often my reviews contain very little of the story plot. I know that may be frustrating to some readers, but if you really want to know the plot of a story, you can find that anywhere. And, for this story in particular, I think it’s important for readers to not be exposed to too much of the plot beforehand. Giving it away removes some of the shrouded mystery of the book – and isn’t shrouded mystery what fantasy readers love about their books?
To review it though, I will share a story – a real-life story – that happened to me on a MARTA train (Metro Atlanta “subway” system) when I was a teenager. It happened like this:
When I was in high school, my friends and I took the MARTA train in order to get to school. It made us feel independent and mature knowing that our parents trusted us enough to get to school on our own every day. There were the usual cast of characters: The Reggae Man, who played Reggae music cranked up to its highest level on his Walkman so everyone on the train could hear it; The Toothless Woman, who went from one end of the car to the other asking for change while holding out a battered Styrofoam cup; The Business Man, who tried to ignore us all by burying his face in a newspaper as if he was better than everyone even though we were all taking the same train every day. We would often see the same people day after day. The cast became familiar. Regular.
Then one day, a large man entered the train car. A stranger. He was dressed in white from head to toe, almost like a chef. He even had a slouchy white hat cocked awkwardly on his head. You see all types of people on the train, so normally nothing about this man would have made any difference to my day at all. But there was something abnormal about this man. He was smiling. Not just a normal “Have a nice day!” smile either. A huge, gum-showing, 32-to-the-front, lips peeled back kind of smile. And he didn’t stop smiling that entire train ride. It was eerie. I knew I was being rude by staring, but it was like a creepy magnet that kept pulling me back. My friends were crying as they tried to suppress their nervous laughter (as we were sitting right across from this man). He seemed to be staring into nothingness. Just smiling and staring.
My mind was all logic, “There’s something special about him. You shouldn’t laugh. Just find another focus. Stop looking at him.” But it was like I was locked in and I couldn’t have looked away even if I wanted to. And the smile became more of a grimace and instead of a happy chef, he began to look more like a crazed assassin. (Note: Please don’t let my adolescent notions make you believe that I am insensitive to neurodiverse people or those who have unique physical features. Usually, I would never have behaved like I did that day, which is why it was such an odd experience).
After a few stops, the man got up and exited the train. When we started moving again, the volume of everyone, everything on the train (people talking, music, babies, etc.) seemed to be immediately louder. I realized that while he had been on with us, our train car had been almost deadly silent; as if everyone was holding their breath. And it wasn’t until he exited that we felt that life could continue as normal.
That’s kind of how I felt while reading this book: brain-warped.
Fear the rising of the sun
Melissa Albert tells a fairy tale about a fairy tale and once you’re in it, you can’t breathe again until that door is closed again. Although it has a rather slow start (things really don’t start to pick up until you’re more than halfway through the book), those who love weird goings-on and those who can imagine walking through their dreams will appreciate this trek through the Hazel Wood and its cast of dream-state characters.
I’ve seen some not-so-favorable reviews of this book from people who weren’t impressed with the story and the slow development of the plot. I can see where they are coming from. But I can also be appreciative that Albert has not given us a microwave story that is reminiscent of many other YA fantasy stories out there now – even though it does indeed contain princesses and castles.
This is absolutely a story that stands on its own – in all its individually abnormal glory. And if you can’t give a debut novel five stars for being a favorite, you can (or I can) at least give it four stars for definitely being original.
About the Author
Melissa Albert is the founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog and the managing editor of BN.com. She has written for McSweeney’s, Time Out Chicago, MTV, and more. Melissa is from Illinois and lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Hazel Wood is her first novel. Her second book, a sequel to The Hazel Wood is as yet unnamed and is expected to be released in 2019. There is also a Hazel Wood 2.5 in the works, Tales from the Hinterland, that is anticipated for 2020.
(Bio adapted from Macmillan Publishers)