Hollow Fields puts a steampunk spin on the magical boarding school story. The first volume starts with a familiar setup—spunky outsider kid trying to make it in a snooty boarding school—but author Madeleine Rosca starts tossing in curve balls almost from the beginning. The school is run by steam-driven robot teachers, the students are the children of mad scientists and evil dictators, and the curriculum includes such nonstandard subjects as grave robbing, cross-species transplantation, and the construction of assassin robots.
Lucy Snow is the only normal kid there, having stumbled into the school by mistake and foolishly signed a contract without reading it. She soon learns that Hollow Fields Academy is a sink-or-swim place: The student with the lowest grades each week gets sent to the old windmill for detention—and is never seen again. The other students give Lucy the cold shoulder, and one girl, Summer, is so mean, she has rigged up her stuffed rabbit with a boxing glove. Just as Lucy is about to give up hope, a mysterious talking box pops up and helps her with her projects, including building a killer robot and transforming her stuffed dinosaur into a useful escape tool.
The plot thickens in the second volume, when the back story of the school is revealed: The principal, Miss Weaver, and all the faculty have far outlived their natural lifetimes by patching together new mechanical bodies. Now those bodies are falling apart, and Miss Weaver is trying to prolong their lives indefinitely by transferring souls from one body to another. The students sent to the windmill are guinea pigs for the first part of the process; she removes their souls, but the process is seldom complete.
The remaining students have their own agenda, and Lucy soon stumbles upon a secret laboratory where Summer and the other students have been working on some extracurricular projects of their own. She barely escapes being crushed by a giant robot and ends up in the windmill. And then thingsreally heat up for Lucy. Rosca lets her imagination run wild as students and teachers alike break out crazier and deadlier weapons, from giant lobster claws to a flying golem, in a lengthy climax.
Rosca’s use of flashbacks, splash pages, and telling details give Hollow Fields a cinematic feel. Her art is precise and complex, and she creates a dazzling array of steam-powered and clockwork robots. Everything creaks and hisses and clanks, cuing the reader to what an old castle full of robots sounds like on a rainy night.
Hollow Fields is too complex and too scary for young children, but anyone old enough to appreciate Harry Potter should enjoy the magical atmosphere and clever creations that populate this book.
Reviewed by Brigid Alverson on July 24, 2007
Hollow Fields, Volume 1