Another year rolls by, and another book in the Wayward Children series gets nominated for the Hugo award. Unfortunately, as time goes by, the series seems to have lost its spark and became somewhat stale. This title digs itself into an even deeper hole: it takes place in the same universe as the previous books, but completely sidesteps the existence of Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children and its inhabitants, and instead acts as a standalone story of a girl and her doorway. And so, instead of having something that is more of the same and in dire need for a fresh spark, we get something of more of the same, in dire need of a fresh spark, but without the continuation of the overall story arc of the children, their interaction, and their quest to find their worlds again.
Reagan is a girl who loves horses. She grows up in a loving family who provides her with the opportunity to ride horses, and who supports her in all her endeavors. She is also friends with the school’s mean girl, but only because it gives her a sense of belonging and normalcy. Without her friend and mistress, she’d be nobody at school. However, at eleven, a series of events puts Reagan into the crosshairs of her friend, who abandons and ridicules her. Despondent, Reagan runs away from school and walks home through a forest. She finds a doorway. She enters it and finds herself in a different world.
The world is the Hooflands, which is populated by all kinds of horse variants. She is taken in by a family of centaurs who herd unicorns. Other hoofed animals are present at an annual market. She becomes a celebrity because the locals know of humans as saviors of the world. Whenever a crisis emerges, so does a human who becomes their hero and sets the world on its right track again. When Reagan is abducted by agents of the queen who is slowly turning evil, her centaur family rescues her and shelters her for the next five years, while the kingdom around them turns for the worse. Finally, unwilling to witness the queen’s atrocities any longer, Reagan leaves her adopted family and travels to the queen’s castle to confront her.
This novella is different from the previous ones in several significant ways. Most notably, it omits the entire School for Wayward Children and its protagonists. There had been an overreaching story arc about the school and its residents, over the books a complex chemistry was developed, and all that had been put aside for a single standalone story. The second obvious difference was a slight tonal shift. The stories have become progressively darker, and the set pieces included more real world and adult references. Grass Fields reverts to young adult fiction, with the emphasis on “young”. The title also seems to address one of the main points of critique of the previous title, Come Tumbling Down. There, a group of children entered a fantasy world, but ultimately only one of them had any agency and could resolve the crisis. The rest was just in her way. In Grass Fields, McGuire decided to go with only one protagonist from the beginning, in a very linear story. It certainly helped a little.
Unfortunately, something didn’t click with me in this novella. I just could not force myself to care about Reagan or anyone else in the book. The main character is flat and without personality. This may be deliberate, as she is described as always wanting to be normal and average. It doesn’t help to make her more sympathetic to the reader, though. The centaurs are not developed well enough to care about. The story is linear, and the ending is hinted on quite early, so I had no reason to care about anyone. As such, reading this novella felt like eating puffed rice cakes. They serve their purpose of satisfying my midday cravings at very few calories, but they are unexciting.
Across the Green Grass Fields was a miss, in my opinion. The book didn’t seem to serve any purpose I could discover. It did not further the story of the wayward children, and even as a standalone book it was so dull that I almost suspect it was on purpose. The primary feature in this title was that it reverted most of the adult themes and moods of the previous titles and pushed the series back into young adult fiction. For someone like me, in the first stage of midlife crisis where I appreciate nostalgia-inducing references, however, this novella left me indifferent.