I had high hopes for The Hazel Wood but ended up confused, frustrated, and worst of all, bored. Two stars for incoherent execution on a wonderful urban fantasy concept.

Book cover: The Hazel Wood

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.

~

One of my all-time favorite books is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart. That was one of those books for me as a kid–the kind I reread until it fell apart.

So show me a story about a girl discovering her family’s connections to fictional characters might be more than literary? I’m already interested. Throw in glowing praise from other YA authors and that incredible cover and I’m sold. I checked out the audiobook without a second thought.

Those high hopes were the reason I didn’t DNF the book at 40% when I realized that nothing had happened. Despite my boredom and confusion, I kept going, because this book has a way of making it seem like something incredible is just around the corner.

It never was, of course, but I couldn’t accept that until I finished.

~ The Rules of Fairy Tales ~

The Hazel Wood seems to want to be a love letter to fairy tales in all their weirdness and darkness. That sounded good to me, but I think Melissa Albert and I have very different ideas about what’s great about fairy tales. I was hoping for a send-up of all the things I love in those stories… the adventure, the horror, the fast pace and sweeping scope, the strange but captivating characters, the twisted morals. To me, fairy tales are quick and dirty little punches of character or lessons or allegory.

To Albert, it seems like what’s great about fairy tales is that they don’t have to follow traditional rules of story structure. They don’t have to have coherent cause-and-effect, and characters do things just because.

It turns out that applying those qualities to a YA novel results in something muddled and unsatisfying. I guess that’s the reason for those traditional rules of story structure that Albert seems so eager to buck.

I don’t have a problem with fictional worlds that operate by different rules, but by halfway through the book, I really want to understand, on a basic level, what kind of story I’m reading. The Hazel Wood never lets me. It begins as a very promising contemporary, then takes on some fantasy elements only to veer into this “fairy tale logic” place… but it doesn’t stay there for long either. By the climax, the book has become an Alice in Wonderland retelling, which (1) doesn’t have anything to do with the first half of the book and (2) operates by an incompatible set of narrative rules.

With its disjointed beats, colorful characters, and unispiring lead young woman, The Hazel Wood might have made a good ballet. It has a very similar structure to The Nutcracker: beginning very realistically, then sprinkling in some fantasy, then pivoting hard at intermission into a fantasy parade of weirdos that has no narrative connection to anything else.

But there’s a reason that novels don’t work that way. (In fact, I’d point to this NPR interview with Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked. When Maguire set out to novelize his take on the Nutcracker story, he quickly ran into problems with the bananas structure of the ballet and knew things had to be more connected.) For anything else to matter, the story needs a good foundation.

~ Alice and Friends ~

Without that foundation, the characters flounder. Alice had the makings of an interesting arc, but all her development is shoved into an unexplained deus ex machina in the climax. Until that moment, she’s an unpleasant, static character. Her travel companion, Finch, was much less unpleasant to spend time with, but he ends up being the mouthpiece for a jarring and unearned lecture about racism he tries to give an uninterested Alice. That scene only served to draw attention to how troubling the racial dynamics of the story are to begin with.

Besides our two leads, I have difficulty even remembering other characters. We spend a great deal of time early on getting to know characters that don’t matter in the second half when suddenly a flood of new characters come in. It’s impossible to care about either set.

If you are going to brave The Hazel Wood (which I don’t recommend, but hey, plenty of people loved it) then you should absolutely go with the audio version if you’re able. Rebecca Soler gives a fantastic performance and listening makes the long stretches of nothing a little more bearable.

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