It’s difficult to reconcile the good book that HAZEL & HOLLY is with the great book you want it to be. Author Sara C. Snider has crafted a story full of delights both wondrous and ominous and once you get past your notions of what you wish her tale of witchcraft and necromancy to be it isn’t hard to fall in love with the world she has created and the characters with which she populates it. HAZEL & HOLLY is a book that offers no shortage of delights spanning from horrifying to fantastic and, ultimately, it is an enjoyable yarn. Ever present, however, is the feeling that a few tweaks and cuts here and there might have elevated her novel to something more classic.
At its core, HAZEL & HOLLY is a simple story of self-discovery and learning mastery over your skills while ridding yourself of the pains of memory. It is, in this sense, a wonderfully authentic rendering of modern day witchcraft. A quick perusal of her blog seems to reveal that Snider herself has, at the very least, an interest in actual witchcraft and her story is full of herbalism, crystal work, and the kinds of spells you might be familiar with if you’ve spent time with witches, Wiccans, or anyone who professes to be a modern practitioner of magick.
It almost serves, then, as a kind of thesis on what the purpose of modern witchcraft is hidden inside the realm of fantasy witchcraft. If we assume that modern witches seek self-mastery and self-discovery, HAZEL & HOLLY can be seen as a parable for the modern witch, weaving fairytale trappings inside of a starkly introspective journey.
We follow the witches Hazel and Holly, sisters seeking their long lost father who has trapped the spirit of their dead mother in a necromantic spell. Outcast from their community for his study of that black art, the sisters have no idea where to look or who to turn to in order to find what they seek. They’re joined by the warlock brothers Hawthorn and Hemlock, who each have designs of their own and ulterior motives for joining the quest.
HAZEL & HOLLY is at its best when Hazel and Holly are allowed to interact by themselves. The book’s opening is filled with marvelous interaction between the two sisters, the elder and more jaded Hazel and the younger, flightier Holly, which effortlessly sets the tone of their two characters and the growth they must both endure. Hawthorn and Hemlock, meanwhile, serve as delightful counterparts and mirrors of the sisters, adding an almost Victorian flair to the story. You could almost see one of the Bronte sisters weaving these characters together as a magical exploration of relationships and courting.
This isn’t exactly a new development for this genre, of course. Susanna Clarke accomplished this with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell back in 2004, and tonally speaking, HAZEL & HOLLY does owe a bit of debt to that work. Snider, however, has carefully crafted her own unique tale and, outside of occasional similarities in tone, differs entirely from that work.
As her story continues, however, the light tone of the beginning slowly fades as the sisters find themselves wading deeper and deeper into the waters of necromancy. Snider proves herself to be capable of handling shifts in tone as the darkness of the book’s latter half begins to sink in. The sisters discover that the world outside of their witch community is often less stringent against the practice of darker magic, leading to some frightening encounters with the undead and with their own selves.
Though quite often Snider’s pacing and plotting feels off—so many doors are knocked on and so many picaresque encounters are endured—it’s easy to forgive the novel’s faults if you allow yourself immersion into the world. Admittedly, this can be a tall order. There’s occasionally a contrived feeling to the dialogue and actions of the characters and sometimes problems are solved with a near overabundance of convenience.
While befitting of the witch’s fairytale aesthetic Snider is going for, I did at times find myself wishing the plot and characters were allowed to unfold and grow in a less ordained manner. Ultimately, this keeps HAZEL & HOLLY locked out of greatness. That said, it’s still a very good book whose enchantments are legion if you allow yourself to succumb to them. In the end, it is what it is, and we can’t always get what we want. Snider still does a good job at delivering a story worth reading that explores the myriad of paths one might choose to walk.