The Night Country, the second installment in Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood series, is a dark, fascinating story that asks what a happy ending really looks like.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who discovered she was really a vengeful fairytale princess, and who had to choose between life in the real world and one in the realm of Story. That’s the basic premise of Melissa Albert’s breakout 2019 debut The Hazel Wood, which told the story of Alice Prosperpine, her journey to a fairy world known as the Hinterland to rescue her mother, and her discovery that her true identity is Alice-Three-Times, a murderous, rage-filled Story character herself.
(Spoiler alert: The Hazel Wood is incredible, and if you haven’t read it yet, please fix your life.)
Sequel The Night Country takes things one step further by asking what happens after the fairytale is over, and what the idea of a happy ending really means. Alice, now living in New York City surrounded by the other fairytale refugees who fled the Hinterland, is struggling to figure out her new identity, caught between the girl she once was in her Story, and the one she’s trying to become now. Ellory Finch is missing, off exploring other magical realms on his own as the remaining bits of the Hinterland collapse around him. Their lives slowly begin to converge again when someone starts murdering ex-Stories in a way that’s very reminiscent of Alice’s own formerly magical abilities.
Caught between her real life and her fairytale one, Alice must decide who it is that she wants to be. On the surface, much of her story is a straightforward murder mystery, as she attempts to identify not just who is killing ex-Stories, but for what reason. Emotionally, however, it explores issues of loss and anger, memory and grief, and the constantly familiar ache of not knowing where we belong. We meet several other ex-Stories along the way who also share this problem, though the most interesting is probably Sophia, a girl whose tale not only involves being in love with Death, but also makes her functionally immortal. Sort of.
(Not for nothing, but I’d read an entire book about these other Stories – their lives, their histories and their relationships with one another. Albert has a gift for making these fairytales feel somehow familiar and utterly alien at once.)
The Night Country is full of Albert’s trademark lush prose and fascinatingly dark imagery, in both the fantasy and real worlds. The struggle of Alice and her ex-Story friends is complicated and difficult – to figure out how to fit in, behave normally, and whether they can sharpen the edges of Story into something like a human shape. More importantly, do they even want to succeed? What if they don’t want to be human? (And what about those Stories who are dangerous or unrepentant monsters? What happens to them?)
Alice is a more complex character in this sequel, made up of confusion and indecision rather than simply rage, though her anger at the way her life has turned out is still both present and real. But it’s Ellory Finch who really becomes a new person here, shedding his painfully geek fanboy persona and becoming a much more confident adventurer, someone who has to travel away from his home in order to find his way back there again.
Unlike The Hazel Wood, The Night Country’s narrative is much more straightforward, even if it does take place in two alternating POVs. Alice and Finch’s stories eventually intersect toward the end of the novel, and the climax is both shocking and exciting, with several significant twists. But mostly, this is a story about the power of stories. About how our fantasies can become deadly when they become a way to ignore the world around us. Or how we can turn into monsters in the struggle to get what we want. Whether we can become so influenced by the stories of others, so much so that we forget that we’re supposed to be living our own.
The Night Country is a story of dreams and consequences, growth and sacrifice. It’s a reminder that we really are all stories in the end, and that ultimately we have the power to choose our own narrative paths. To be the people we’ve always dreamed we could become. We are our own Authors and the Spinners of our own realities, and we can decide our own endings.
Is this sequel strictly necessary? Probably not. But the world of the Hinterland is so strange and appealing, that it’s pointless to resist the call to return to it and the lives of its characters. (Plus, the sweet build to what feels like an inevitable romance between Alice and Finch is charming, and I’m not made of stone, ok?) If you enjoyed The Hazel Wood, you won’t want to put this down either.
The Night Country is available in bookstores now. Will you be giving it a try?