I wavered between giving this a high three stars or a low four. It was beautifully written, with believable characters and motivations. For me its main drawback was how long it took to get going; for half the book, it’s really just literary fiction rather than fantasy or fairy tale retelling, which makes the occasional fantastical elements feel out of place. The writing style in the beginning half also felt a little distant to me, similar to the writing in fantasy classics like the Narnia series, which I’ve never really loved.
The book really picks up in the second half, though, and here we see Anne Ursu’s fantasy writing skills on full display. Hazel’s trip into the woods leads her through one surreal experience after another, many of them enough to cause a lingering shiver when you think of them. The woods are also rich with metaphor, longing, and darkness, where things are not what they seem. This is “hero’s quest” writing at its best; it changes the character and tests her mettle, and you know nothing will ever be the same again.
The winter ambiance was also incredibly rich. No surprise that the author lives in Minnesota! One comment on the audio version, which is how I read this book: they made the odd choice to have a male narrator even though the story is told almost exclusively from Hazel’s perspective, making a female voice seem the more logical choice. The reader did have a good “storytelling” voice, but that may have contributed to certain parts of the book feeling a tad distant as well.