Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Author Interview: Melissa Albert on Tales From the Hinterland

Melissa Albert author photoCR: Laura EtheredgeMelissa Albert is the author of the fantasy noir novels The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. In her latest book, Tales From the Hinterland Albert presents a collection filled with the short stories that form the underpinnings of her previous novels’ world building. These eerie, dark, extremely feminist stories are exactly the kinds of tales we need in this strange moment in world. I’m thrilled to have Melissa here today to talk more about her writing and her latest release.

Miss Print: Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Melissa Albert: As a kid devouring the Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan I always dreamed of being a fantasy author, but when I got older I decided the more “practical” path (lol) was to become a journalist. I did some beat reporting and arts writing (mostly book and theater reviews) in Chicago, then started blogging for Barnes & Noble. Through my work with B&N I discovered this booming golden era of YA fantasy had begun. I became obsessed and decided in 2011 to try writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month. It was a hideous disaster, of course, but when I recovered I was determined to try again. Which developed into a bloody-minded determination to finish something I’d started. It’s very easy and fun to start writing a book! It is less easy to finish one.

Miss Print: Tales From the Hinterland presents Althea Proserpine’s notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. What came first when you started writing within this world: the stories or Alice (the main character in The Hazel Wood)? Did you always know you had multiple stories to tell within this framework/world?

Melissa: The first thing that came was the idea of a reclusive author alone in a house in the deep dark woods, and the idea of her being preyed on by something more sinister than isolation. Then came Alice’s voice, which I wanted to give the world-weary vibe and alternately spare and lavish style of Raymond Chandler’s noir narration. Then I had to figure out why this young, healthy person was so world-weary, and figure out how to pull the floor out from under her sense of herself as being jaded and self-sufficient. I didn’t know till later drafts that I would dare to weave in more than just references to the Hinterland tales.

Miss Print: Tales From the Hinterland includes some stories that readers of your previous novels will recognize as well as some new tales that were only ever mentioned as titles before. How did you go about returning to these familiar tales from a fresh perspective? How was writing the short stories for this collection different from writing the excerpts included in your previous novels as Alice and Ellery learn more about the Hinterland?

Melissa: In THW and TNC I had the context of the novels to give the stories and pieces of story that I shared extra resonance. They were imagined as standalone tales, but told within larger works. With the actual collection of Tales, I had to be sure each story worked as its own distinct, self-contained universe, as well as a piece of a larger whole. It was an interesting headspace to be so immersed in, for so long, because when I wrote fairy tales to include within the novel duology it was very refreshing to jump as a writer from the voice of a contemporary heroine to that cooler, more matter of fact fairy-tale tone. Finding the tale-telling voice again took some time, as did finding my balance between the utterly stripped tales you find in old collections and the lusher stories of later writers like (of course) Angela Carter.

Miss Print: 2020 was a strange year with some things carrying over into 2021 as we all continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and work together to stop the spread of Covid-19. So, of course, I have to ask: How would Alice and Ellery mange during this pandemic? Would any of the other Hinterland characters be especially well-suited (or ill-prepared) for dealing with our current circumstances?

Melissa: Alice wouldn’t mind the built-in excuse to stay away from other people, though she’d miss the lost wages. Finch would get really intense about sourdough and attempt (again!) to write a novel.

[Miss Print: I could totally see Finch on a quest to figure out the perfect sourdough technique!]

Miss Print: For me three standout stories in this collection were “The House Under the Stairwell,” “The Clockwork Bride,” and “Death and the Woodwife.” Do you have a favorite story in this collection? Were some stories easier to write than others?

Melissa: I love all my wicked children, but I too have a real soft spot for “Death and the Woodwife.” Some of the stories required lots of revision, lots of reimagining, but “Woodwife” came out very close to fully formed. I also love how the setup for the main narrative operates as its own distinct fairy tale–that was a nod to the shape of one of my favorite classic tales, “The Juniper Tree,” which opens with an almost vignette-sized take on the Snow White tale, before opening into the very weird main story. Also, as the closing story in the collection, I’m very happy with the note it ends on.

Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about your next project? Can we expect more Hinterland tales?

Melissa: I’m thrilled to say that I’m deep into drafting the next book, which is a novel unrelated to the world of the Hazel Wood. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say just yet, so I’ll err on the side of being cagey. But it’s another contemporary fantasy, my great love!

Miss Print: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

Melissa: Read LOTS, protect your writing time (even if it’s just twenty minutes–you can probably find twenty minutes at least a few days a week!), and remember your writing is SUPPOSED to look insufficient to you for a long time. Writing “badly” shouldn’t be discouraging (though it is, I know it is!), it just shows the gap between your vision and your current abilities. I try to look at narrowing that gap as the work of my life as a writer. That, and constantly working on the next thing I don’t yet know how to write, so it always feels exciting and destabilizing and sometimes really hard.

Thank you again to Melissa for these great answers!

You can also read my review of Tales From the Hinterland here on the blog.

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

The Hazel Wood: A Review

“You’re a story, but that doesn’t make you any less true.”

Alice Proserpine has always known that her mother, Ella, was raised on fairy tales amidst the cult-like fandom surrounding the release of “Tales from the Hinterland” a collection of grim fairy tales that, in the 1980s, briefly made Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine a celebrity. Alice doesn’t grow up like that. Instead of fairy tales, Alice has highways as she and Ella constantly move around hoping to outrun their eerie bad luck for good–something that seems much more likely when they learn that Althea has died alone on her estate, The Hazel Wood.

Unfortunately just like in “Tales from the Hinterland” everything isn’t as it seems and soon after Alice’s mother is kidnapped leaving no clue except to warn Alice to stay away from the Hazel Wood. With no other clear path to finding her mother, Alice reluctantly enlists her classmate and not-so-secret Hinterland fan Ellery Finch, who may or may not have ulterior motives for helping, to share his expertise on the fairy tales. The path to the Hazel Wood leads Alice straight into the story of her family’s mysterious past and the moment when her own story will change forever in The Hazel Wood (2018) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Albert’s standalone fantasy debut has a narration in the vein of a world weary noir detective who happens to be a teenage girl named Alice. Resourceful, whip smart, and incredibly impulsive Alice also struggles with her barely contained rage throughout the novel as circumstances spiral out of her control. Alice’s singular personality largely excuses the lack of context for much of her knowledge and cultural references which hearken more to a jaded adult than a modern teen.

The lilting structure and deliberate tone of The Hazel Wood immediately bring to mind fairy tales both new and retold while also hinting at the teeth this story will bear in the form of murder, mayhem, and violence both in the Hinterland tales and in Alice’s reality. An aggressive lack of romance and characters transcending their plots make this story an empowering read that will be especially popular with fans of fairy tale retellings.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*