Monday, January 22, 2018

ARC Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Publication Date: January 30, 2018
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pages: 368
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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. 

The Hazel Wood caught my eye months ago, back when I first read the synopsis on Goodreads. I scrambled to trade for it as soon as possible... and it sat on my shelf for months before I finally worked up to reading it. The hype was strong and unfortunately it just didn't live up to it, mostly because, as I'll explain more, this fantasy novel doesn't contain much fantasy.

Alice is the MC of this story and she is... not that great, to be honest. I wanted to sympathize with Alice. She's had a rough backstory and her mom has been stolen away. She just isn't very sympathetic. Alice is a bit rude to everyone around her, including people who are trying to do everything they can to help. Finch, for example. I really loved Finch and thought he was a great side character and not-fully-realized love interest. You read that right! There isn't a lot of romance in The Hazel Wood, which could be either a pro or a con, depending on your preference. Personally, I would've preferred a bit more of a fleshed out relationship between Finch and Alice, even if it wasn't fully romantic. As the story was told, their interaction kind of just made me dislike Alice more.

There are tons of other super interesting characters in The Hazel Wood, but none of them are around for long enough to get to know. I really wished we could've learned more about the crazy fan who finally made it to the Wood or even some of the creepier, more fantasy-ish characters. Honestly, I'd have settled for more about Alice's elusive grandmother!

Now, allow me to talk about the story and why I feel like this book might have been falsely advertised just a bit. The Hazel Wood has been marketed as a fantasy book about a dark and creepy fantasy wood that Alice has to find. The problem is, it takes most of the book for this to actually happen. For the majority of The Hazel Wood, there is no Wood, just Alice and Finch talking about it. They talk and ride in the car and have run-ins with police officers and ride some more. This is more contemporary, maybe urban fantasy until almost the ending and that just wasn't enough for me. Once Alice finally made it to the Hazel Wood, things started to get more interesting and I just wish we'd had more of THAT. (You know, fantasy in a fantasy book?)

Likewise, the world building was fantastic! Once we got to The Hazel Wood, that is. Up until then, I guess it was okay? But it was just a normal city. I didn't feel particularly creeped out, which is how a lot of people have said this book made them feel. When the fantasy finally happened, it was great! I loved how uneasy I felt about the Wood and Althea's house and everything that came after. I loved the Hinterland and the Stories and every.single.thing. There just wasn't enough to love.

My other issue with The Hazel Wood was with the pacing, and honestly that probably ties back into the lack of fantasy. I don't read contemporary books because they bore me out of my mind, which is exactly how I felt with this. It took me forever to read because I could barely slug through each chapter... until they got to the Wood - I know I must sound like a broken record! A lot did happen, but I didn't feel any real sense of urgency or danger that kept me turning the pages.

I've heard that there will be another book in this series (was this originally planned?) and I honestly have no idea where the author could possibly take it. If it's back to the Wood, I may give it a chance! Melissa Albert does know how to craft a good fairy tale, as evidenced by last chunk of this book and I would love to read anything she writes in the future if it's actually fantasy. Unfortunately, this just... isn't. If you enjoy contemporary AND fantasy, this is probably a book you will love! But if, like me, you can't stand contemporary fiction, you may want to steer clear.