Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

There are so many books out there, Misfits. So many books. Usually, in my efforts to sample as many as I can, I will read the first book of a series, and if it’s good, but doesn’t grab hold of my core, I thank it for its story and move on. Very rarely do I move on to book two. Almost never do I preorder the thing.

I preordered this one- from a different state, no less (I live in California, I preordered this from a Barnes & Noble store in Tennessee). I squeed at the shipping notification and bounced in excitement with my other friends that had preordered it. I pressed through the book I was already reading so I could dive into this one, knowing that I was way behind my friends. Then, I got to read it. I’m a slow reader, y’all, I have a busy life.

I devoured it in 4 days. That’s unheard of for me.

So, what makes this book so special? Well, I’m gonna address the series so far as a whole, because The Night Country is a sequel, and a third book is coming out, though…well, I’ll talk about that later.

There’s an expression that I use a lot when talking to new writers: if you can’t find the book you want to read, write it yourself. And another: there are no new stories, only new ways to tell old ones. Also, that meme about the two cakes.

A real mood, as the kids say.

I’ve had this idea for a while, it’s not new, at all. Many people have baked this cake, but there just wasn’t enough cake out there to satisfy me. So I wrestled with this kernel, this spark of an idea: what if fairy tales were real…just from a different world? What if you could literally walk into the pages of a book and be actually physically there? And if I could get in, can they get out?

Yes, I know, Jasper Fford, Lewis Carroll, even JK Rowling. I said it’s been done. I said there wasn’t enough cake.

I struggled with how I would write this story, how I’d wrestle with the darkness and light of fairytales, breathe new life into obscure ones (there are quite a few in my books, if you’ve got a keen eye), and how I could use the appropriate language to really make them come alive.

I mean…look at it.

Then, I stumbled across The Hazel Wood at Target during the ‘choose a book by its cover’ theme of that year’s book challenge. I’ve rarely ripped through a book so fast. She told my story the way I wanted it told, more beautifully than I ever could.

I’m going to talk about style right here because my feelings are at once too big, but also too easy to sum up to save for a whole section. Essentially, her writing style is half the unfiltered honesty of a naked interrogation-room lightbulb- the kind that swings, so that the shadows shift and you can’t get comfortable; and half raw sensory detail. She doesn’t walk you into a room and tell you that there’s a table and a chair- she shows you the coffee stains and butt-warped cushion. She focuses in on the feelings surrounding details that all together paint a vivid picture in emotions and sensations, rather than a laundry list of things. The funny thing about her style is that it’s counterintuitive to what you would expect in the real world: the plainer the language, the more is being hidden; the more poetic the prose, the more you can trust. But that’s fairytales, isn’t it? Trust your heart, not your eyes. Trickery is everywhere, but a true heart can’t be deceived.

It kind of hurts my feelings, a little bit, lol. I’ve been writing since first grade, it’s pretty much the only thing I have the passion to bend my life around. Reading her style sometimes makes me look askance at my own work.

But hey, two kinds of cake, right? Maybe mine’s a little drier. But it’s ok because dry cake goes better with tea 😉


*Just in case it’s unclear, this book is a sequel, so this section will contain spoilers for The Hazel Wood. If you haven’t read The Hazel Wood yet, I dunno what else I can say to convince you to. Go read it now, come back and thank me later.*

Characters

Like, The Hazel Wood, The Night Country follows the continuing adventures of Alice, ‘granddaughter’ of the mysterious Althea Proserpine, who wrote the series of fairytales, known as Tales from the Hinterland. The Hinterland, of course, is a real place. Alice is a story, a real-life, honest-to goodness fairytale character, known as Alice-Three-Times. Althea’s daughter, Ella, smuggled her out of the Hinterland and raised her in the real world as her own daughter. But like all people living where they don’t belong, the Hinterland pulled poor Alice back, and that’s the plot of The Hazel Wood.

Alice has ice powers, she’s got a temper and an independent streak a mile long. In The Night Country, she wrestles with wanting to be a part of the community of other ex-stories who fled the Hinterland when her kinda-sorta boyfriend broke her out of it and in the process, unravelled the whole world. But she also wants to be a Normal Girl with Ella, and keep her safe. She’s a very different character from me, but one of the few I can get fully behind, despite the sometimes irrationality of her actions.

Ellory Finch is the fairytale-obsessed, kind of an asshole, entitled rich kid who sets Alice on this path for real. To his credit, he does fight like hell in The Night Country, and we get to see a lot more of his good sides, like his trust, resourcefulness, determination, and yes, even a little softness. He brings with him a character call Iolanthe, who I thought was one character, but she turned out to be..??? What, exactly??? I guess we’ll find out. Little minx did the thing and then just, like, fucked off?

The Spinner was a very slight disappointment for me, I have to say. I clocked her immediately. I hope that was Albert’s intention and it’s dramatic irony- where the audience knows what’s up, but the characters don’t.

Setting

First of all, I’m a country mouse at heart, despite growing up in big cities. I have no interest in New York City, but Jesus, does this book make it creepy as hell. Talk about sinister.

Secondly, the way she describes the death of the Hinterland is sad and beautiful at the same time. But as we learn later, the Hinterland was always a kind of fucked up power trip nightmare to begin with. Not that its inhabitants don’t have feelings that matter, but they arguably never should have existed to begin with, and I feel like a lot of them would agree.

But what really shines to me is Finch’s journey with Iolanthe. The dead city, the library, the Victorian market town. All of that was phenomenal. Honestly, I thought it was going to turn out that Iolanthe was the princess from the story, so now I REALLY need answers about her and her world. Melissa Albert is way too good at tying up loose ends to just…leave us hanging. Iolanthe is not a Hinterlander, so that story must be coming after the next book.

Plot

Ok, so the plot follows two people: Alice’s first-person narration and Finch’s third person limited, with some insertions of fairytales, here and there.

Uuuuugh, this is always so hard for me. I can never decide if I’m writing these reviews to convince people to buy the books, or if I write these reviews for people who have read the book and want to talk about them. On the one hand, I really want to talk about That Scene at the shop, or That Bit on the fire escape, or The Party, or The Church, or That Thing that Happened on the Subway that Ties into That Thing that Happened at The End…but I can’t.

I have feelings, y’all, but I can’t bring myself to spoil a plot twist. Call it professional integrity, call it Author Code, call it Christmas Morning Syndrome (that’s not a real thing, but it should be. It’s like where you just cannot spoil a really good surprise, no matter how much someone wants you to). If you’ve read it, hit me up on Facebook. If you barrelled past my spoiler warning and are still here, buy the book and read it. You’ll be glad I didn’t spoil it.

Let’s just say, this is what makes me think the thing with The Spinner was deliberate. The twist at the end I did not see coming, and in hindsight, she set it up perfectly. All the signs were there, aggressively, from the start. Also, between some stuff that happened there and Iolanthe just…swanning off like she wasn’t like a quarter of the book, makes me feel like this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of this episode.

So, onto my theories of what to expect from Book 3: Tales from the Hinterland.

I have two. 1: it’s our long-awaited storybook by Althea Proserpine, herself. The stories as they appeared in Ellory Finch’s favourite book, in all their fairytale glory. Simply an anthology of fairytales, practically a standalone, followed by Book Three Proper of the series which will answer some goddamn questions.

Or

It is Book Three Proper, and answer some goddamm questions, but also have some stories in. This theory accepts Tales from the Hinterland not as itself in its entirety, but referentially, like it has to do with The Tales, but isn’t The Tales. Much like how The Night Country does tell that story, but isn’t that story fully. A McGuffin, if you will.

So either it is the stories, finally (cos I’m curious As Hell), or it’s about the tales. I honestly don’t know which I want more.


Well, that’s it for me on The Night Country, Misfits. You guys should seriously check it out. I think you’ll really enjoy it. And check out my review of the first book, The Hazel Wood.

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