I got started with Hugo voting a couple years after perennial nominee Seanan McGuire broke through with a Best Novella win for Every Heart a Doorway, so I haven’t read the entire Wayward Children series of portal fantasy novellas, but last year’s nomination of Come Tumbling Down and its associated backstory for me two-thirds of the way, and this year’s nomination of Across the Green Grass Fields has me diving into the series yet again (and I swear I plan to circle back to In an Absent Dream, which seems to be a popular favorite).
[The Wayward Children series alternates between present-day stories and portal fantasies that serve as prequels. Across the Green Grass Fields, as an even-numbered entry, is a prequel and contains no spoilers for previous entries in the series.]
Across the Green Grass Fields stars Regan, a horse-loving girl struggling to navigate the social expectations of femininity—even elementary school femininity. But when her body doesn’t change the way the other girls’ do and the bullying becomes intolerable, a doorway opens into the Hooflands, a world of centaurs, unicorns, kelpies, fauns, and other hoofed mystical creatures. But the portal does not save her from social expectations: the Hooflands await a human chosen to save the world.
Despite the world-saving, Across the Green Grass Fields has more the feel of a low-stakes found family novella than an epic battle against evil. The hardest-hitting problem is not the threat to the Hooflands but the real-world bullying that Regan escapes. While the Earth sections only cover the first chapters of the novella, the story adeptly hammers home the toxic dynamics in schools that are often dismissed by parents as just kids being kids, in turn creating a gaping social void in Regan’s life that can be perfectly filled by a herd of centaurs. Life with the centaurs always has the necessity of eventually saving the world lurking in the background, but mostly it’s an opportunity for Regan to build a life and forge strong relationships with a group of people who adopt her as their own. And it’s a genuine delight to read.
The overarching plot, on the other hand, is mostly left for the finish, where it tries to do a bit too much in too little time. Regan hears conflicting stories about the deeds of past human heroes and about just what is so wrong with the world that it should need saving. So there’s some mystery about the politics of the Hooflands, as well as a second grappling with forces pushing Regan into acting in accordance with social expectations instead of taking command of her own life. But the novella tries to cover too much in too short a space, and it ends without a satisfying resolution to the mysterious history or anything but the most shallow charge to address the broken inter-species politics. And then, because this is the central conceit of the series, Regan must return to the world of her birth, and it’s bound to be traumatizing. But whereas other books had returns that were at least motivated in the short-term, this one is entirely unsatisfying. And long-time series fans can probably accept the dissatisfaction and look forward to reading more about the character in book seven. But I’ve heard this touted as an alternate entry point to Every Heart a Doorway, and I can’t imagine a new reader being anything but frustrated by the ending.
Ultimately, the story does enough good setting up Regan’s story and building her relationship with the Hooflands natives to make it a worthwhile read, though one that seems aimed at a slightly younger audience than prior installments. But its failure to stick the landing keeps it from coming together into something truly excellent.
Recommended if you like: the rest of the Wayward Children series, traumatized children finding for-now family.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mental Health, and is also a Book Club book with something of a Revolution or Rebellion
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.