2018’s The Hazel Wood is the first volume in Melissa Albert’s Hazel Wood young-adult fantasy series.
Plagued by bad luck, Alice and her mother Ella have spent years moving from temporary home to temporary home. Then a letter informs Ella that her mother, reclusive cult fantasy author Althea Proserpine, has died. A relieved Ella believes that this mean the end of bad luck.
Ella is very wrong.
After leaving the nomadic life behind her, Ella finds love with wealthy Harold. Alas, money is Harold’s only positive quality. Ella is simply the latest of a long sequence of wives who belatedly discovered what a dud Harold is. No doubt she will not be the last.
The first hint that the weirdness has not ended comes when Alice catches a glimpse of a man she has not seen since he (briefly) kidnapped her eleven years earlier. Was it really her abductor or just someone who looked like him? Alice isn’t sure.
Alice returns to Harold’s expensive home to find the dwelling empty save for a disturbing smell. Did Harold, his until-now unmentioned daughter Audrey, and Ella just up and leave? Or did something much worse happen to them?
When a traumatized Harold and Audrey reappear, they make it clear the answer is “something much worse”: figures straight out Althea’s stories kidnapped the trio, then discarded Harold and Audrey as surplus to needs. The pair has a message for Alice from Ella: “Tell Alice to stay the hell away from the Hazel Wood.”
Hazel Wood is, as far as Alice knows, her late grandmother’s mysterious estate, location unknown. Determined to save Ella, Alice resolves to find Hazel Wood and to do the very opposite of stating the hell away. If only she knew where Hazel Wood was….
Having no family to turn to, Alice turns to schoolmate/weird kid Ellery “Finch” Oliver Djan-Nelson-Abrams-Finch for assistance. Their quest to find Hazel Wood will be all too successful. They will discover who took Ella and that “where is Hazel Wood” isn’t as important question as “What is Hazel Wood?” Most important: they will learn secrets about Alice herself that Ella has long concealed. Like Hazel Wood, the important question about Alice is “what is Alice?”
Once she learns her true nature, what will Alice do about it?
Someday I will read a book in which protagonists, encountering unambiguous hints that they are looking for that which is cursed, where finding it involved almost certain doooooooooom, immediately turn around and open a coffee shop somewhere obscure. This isn’t that book1. At least there’s a reason why that won’t work in this novel.
Minor spoiler: it is clear early on that this is a setting where stories are real (if you can access the dimension in which they live) and that it is possible for entities to migrate from one realm to others2. While it’s clear that Finch knows a lot about fantasy and Althea’s fantasies in particular, it may be that he has not read many books whose stories are real. If he had, he would have spent more time wondering what happens to the only black character in a book once his narrative purpose is accomplished3.
Alice is kind of horrible. In her defense, this is characterization. Being inconsiderate and mean, not to mention having anger management issues, doesn’t even touch the potential for extraordinary unpleasantness that her nature gives her. Being annoying is for her a huge step up over what fate wants her to be. As long as she’s not leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, she’s doing as well as can be expected4.
This a perfectly competent tale of a person caught up in stories that prove all too real, delivering everything one expects from such stories: mystery, danger, revelation, more danger and then to change things up, still more danger. Unfortunately, that’s all this is: a perfectly competent example of a specific subgenre that delivers what it needs to without going beyond that. Experienced readers will have a pretty good idea where the story has to go, even if Alice doesn’t.
1: Supporting characters Harold and Audrey waste little time putting distance between them and the plot as soon as it is practical.
2: If this were in fact the case, you could probably get to Earth Two if you were obsessively dedicated to the task.
3: Fear not! Terrible things happen to Finch but not only terrible things. He gets to have his own story told in one of the sequels.
4: IMHO Ella could have picked a better coping mechanism to deal with Alice’s nature than keeping Alice ignorant, all the while hoping that Alice’s nature would never become relevant. This, in a world whose laws ensure that said nature will inevitably be an issue.