Tales from the Hinterland

Cover image of the book "Tales from the Hinterland"

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Book Review

Tales From the Hinterland presents readers with 12 pitch-black fairy tales that spring from the world constructed in author Melissa Albert’s previous bestselling novels. This is a darkly lyrical collection of stories about clockwork toys that consume children’s dreams; a girl who spends a night with Death; a maiden skinned to make her a better bride; parents who sell children for a life of fortune; and more.

Plot Summary

Melissa Albert’s book The Hazel Wood introduced readers to its protagonist hero Alice, as well as a mystical other-world called the Hinterland. Alice’s grandmother, Althea Proserpine, was said to have authored a notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories called Tales From the Hinterland. When that anthology was published in our world, its characters escaped from the pages into our reality.

This is that book. And these are their backstories.

The dozen fairy tales collected here are savage, angry, bitter and cruel. We read, for instance, of a young girl named Hansa who is the product of a seagoing man and a star. She must seek out her imprisoned mother and cut off her hand if she hopes to set her free. Another young woman must use her sister’s life blood to paint a doorway to a dark, empty dimension of freedom. Three sisters prick their fingers and shed their blood on a briar patch gravesite in exchange for dreams of their future husbands. A young girl named Ilsa, who can see Death, spends a night with him and learns his soul-harvesting ways. Another woman makes a bargain with a clockwork toymaker and sells him her unborn child. And another is shorn of her skin to make her a “better” and more obedient wife.

The stories tell of people’s lusts, illicit affairs and bottled rage, frustrations with being thought inadequate, fears of failing, and their hopelessness in the face of loss. And happy endings are rarely a part of the ever after here.

Christian Beliefs

There is no God or any kind of heavenly higher power in this story world. In fact, one tale tells of a woman and her husband who are childless and praying “for the gods to give them one, but there were no gods to hear.”

Other Belief Systems

This anthology of stories suggests that other worlds exist in addition to our own. As such, these tales all take place in a magical land of kings, paupers, witches, demons, enchanters and talking inanimate objects. Characters converse with Death; they enter alternate dimensions; they shed their skins; they strain against the will of powerful creatures; they cast spells and get caught up in mystical happenings and ironclad predestinations that are often well outside their control. Innocents are bewitched by spells and turned into mindless husks of themselves and eventually killed.

Authority Roles

Parents in these tales are neglectful, abusive, smothering and foolish. Whether they are kings and queens or penniless commoners, their parental choices always tend to be self-serving and unconcerned with their young charges. For instance, one mother and father sell their daughter into marriage to a magical house in exchange for great fortune. They struggle with guilt for a short time but soon forget about those feelings once they receive riches and a new home full of belongings.

Even non-human guiding forces such as the moon and the sea tide—talking entities that professes to be a young human girl’s relatives—often send their young charges off in directions that they know will be perilous and most likely deadly

Profanity & Violence

The narrative language and dialogue here are both reminiscent of old English: “Take a stone and prick their heels thrice. Bloody the stone and bury it low and let the Night Women come” So it is free of any contemporary profanity or crudities.

Bloody violence and great pain, however, are always a part of the story mix There are heads and limbs slashed off (and in one case sewn back on). Men and women are eaten whole. Teen girls are left locked in a room to starve to death. And the blood of humans and animals is drained and splashed about for a variety of reasons. People use their own and others’ blood for spells and magical applications, for instance.

Some characters slowly bleed to death. A young woman learns how to snatch away someone’s lifeforce and stores it in a container. She kills evil adults and then begins killing innocent adults and children for the slightest offence. Later, she must face the dead’s soulless shells. Talking animals rip out human throats. A demon-like character forcibly takes a new “bride” every year to drain her of blood and renew his property. And corpses are left in pools of gore.

There are mentions of people drinking wine and other magical concoctions.

Sexual Content

There are no fully described sexual interactions. But sexual activity is alluded to in a number of cases. The Moon, for instance, tells her human granddaughter a story of infidelity between the girl’s mother (who was an actual star) and her seaman father. “He and my daughter had their foolish way with each other,” the Moon reports. In another story a Queen has revenge on her unfaithful husband by having a sexual dalliance with a member of a “feral tribe” and gives birth to a baby with ink-black eyes. There are also mentions of men lusting after beautiful woman, including a king who sexually longs for his own daughter.

Discussion Topics

What do you think these stories say about our choices and their unintended consequences? Are there applicable lessons buried in these tales, or are they just broadly woven fantasy?

What did you think about the darkness and bloodiness of the magical story world of these fairy tales? Do you think that was necessary? What good or bad impact do you think those kinds of elements have?

How did this book impact you emotionally and why?

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Melissa Albert is the New York Times bestselling YA author of The Hazel Wood and The Night Country. This story collection ties directly into both of those popular YA works and will appeal to her fans. The writing here is finely crafted, delivered in an almost poetic cadence that you might expect from a fairy tale of yore.

If readers think carefully on these stories, they’ll also note that they are allegories enlivened by frustration, foolish actions, longing, fear and loss—all seen from a female perspective. But those allegorical thoughts and lessons can get lost at times as the stories flounder in unrelentingly nightmarish and often gruesome outcomes. Many young readers will find this book’s dark tales disturbing, at the very least. Parents should note that this is not a fairy tale collection for a child’s nightstand. 

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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