Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nitpickery: Hollow Fields

Hey y'all.  So I was working at the bookstore the other day, and I was putting up some new manga books we just bought in.  One of these was a thick volume called Hollow Fields.  This is what the back cover of it says:

"Little Lucy Snow was meant to be enjoying her first day at the nice Elementary school in town, however a macabre twist of fate sees her enrolled instead at Miss Weaver's Academy for the Scientifically Gifted and Ethically Unfettered- also known as Hollow Fields.

Located on the outskirts of Nullsville and run by the insidious Engineers, the grim boarding school dedicates itself to raising the next generation of mad scientists and evil geniuses!  Classes include Live Taxidermy, Cross Species Body-Part Transplantation and Killer Robot Construction, and for her own survival Lucy has to master them quickly...the student with the lowest grades at the end of each school weeks is sent to the windmill for detention -- and so far, no child has ever returned!"

What a great book summary!  The "Unethically Fettered" part alone made me want to buy the book.  So I did.  It's pretty awesome having first pick at the books we get.  And at five bucks (used bookstore price, sadly) it was a good bargain.

So Hollow Fields.  Is it good to read, you ask?  Definitely!  Note that it's an "all ages" work, so I'm going to judge it accordingly.  Spoiler free review will come first:

This book starts out following the entrance of Lucy Snow into the town of Nullsville.  She's supposed to go to a girl's boarding school, but ends up getting lost in the woods and stumbling upon Hollow Fields.  When she learns that there are no school fees, she decides to stay there and enroll.  Yeah, not such a good idea.  She's forced to figure out the world of mad science or get sent to the mysterious windmill.  Along the way, she encounters people like Miss Notch, the maid; Stinch, the golem school warden; Miss Ricketts, the nurse; Mr. Croach, the grave robbing teacher; and most importantly, Miss Weaver, the creepy principle.

First, let me say that I really like this book.  The sure sign of a true writer is that person's ability to create plot. This plot is a great basis for an entire world of story, and if the author, Madeleine Rosca, ever wrote it into a novel, I'd definitely read it.  However, while plot creating is the sign of a writer, the true sign of a skilled writer is the ability to edit and plot-block.  Both of these things were lacking.  Honestly, part of me felt like I was reading an advanced reader copy.  You know, the early books that people send out to gain the interest of bookstores and such.

By "plot-blocking" I mean arranging the plot elements in the best way possible to create an interesting story.  Like, for example, Rosca wants to show the audience Lucy meeting a boy named Claude McGinty, some background about Miss Weaver, and Mr. Croach's sour attitude.  Where Rosca chooses to place these elements and how she does it is plot-blocking.

One of my problems with the plot is this: Rosca could have chosen several different ways to tell Weaver's backstory, but she mainly chooses flashbacks.  Not only are a couple of these flashbacks poorly timed, but they serve to swing the plot a little too much from Lucy.  Lucy is the main character, so we should be getting to know her better and her background.  Instead, we get flashbacks for Weaver which causes would-be mysterious ideas to be told too many times. It's not good to reveal too much about your villain, particularly in a story that's supposed to hinge mainly on the choices of a different character.

I have a few problems with the school itself.  If you're teaching a mad science curriculum, don't you do more than stitch animals together, dig graves, and work on clockwork mechanics?  Maybe work on rocket science?  I imagine if you're going to have some dangerous experimentation going on that might damage whatever building you're working in, a lot of the kids would have construction "classes" to prevent the school from falling apart.

Also, where do they get all those live animals to sew together?  There seem to be a lot of teachers at this school, but only three of them really appear in a classroom setting.  What do the rest do?  How do the students put the head of a chicken on the head of a fish so quickly, and without more surgery equipment than cutting tools and clamps?

Thing is, a good chunk of my problems with the plot come from "implied plot" -- the sort of plot that is only implied by the author and left for the reader to imagine.  While I feel there is way too much implied plot going on, it actually works pretty well here.  The reader can imagine all the parts that are missing from this plot and let their own imaginations take hold.  That's actually a really good thing.

Of course, the implied plot really does go too far in one particular area: the outside world.  While inside the school, it becomes easier to fill in the blanks based on what Rosca tells us, but what in the world is going on outside of the school?  Rosca never even gives readers a time period, so there's no way to really guess.  We aren't told how Nullsville feels about the school, or how the outside world reacts to the mad scientists that surely will come out of Hollow Fields.  Rosca does mention early on that the children come from mad science homes, but how does that work?  Is the outside world filled with heroes and villains that duke it out?  Or is it a subtle, hidden war that the general public doesn't understand?

As far as the art goes, it's decent.  Not too much to complain about.  Rosca seems to have a bit of a hard time handling continuity, though.  At one point, Weaver has an umbrella, but it's never seen again in the rest of the scene.  Also, there's a bit of that "they're all alike" syndrome where you have to depend on clothing and hair color to tell the difference between the characters.  Not really enough physical differences between a lot of them...the living characters, anyway.  Oh, and Miss Weaver has, um, oddly prominent and large boobs for an "all ages" story.  I'm just sayin'.

All in all, I really enjoyed this manga.  For all its flaws, I read it twice in the four days since I bought it.  It's just so dang interesting.  Rosca has created a really great world, and even though the presentation had its problems, the world itself is still very excellent, and I highly recommend this book.  It's very enjoyable, and I wish she didn't conclude the story at the end.  This is a plot Rosca can potentially use in many of her plots to earn herself more prominence.

Spoilers away!  Full steam ahead!

Okay.  Like I said earlier, most of the flaws with this book center around Miss Weaver.  Mostly the problem is this: Madeleine really seems to like telling Weaver's story rather than Lucy Snow's.  We learn the main core of what there is to know about Weaver, and yet Lucy is pretty generic.  I mean, the story is about her.  Shouldn't we know her at all?

What about her parents?  All we know about Lucy's parents is that they were too busy to take Lucy to school, and that they're dentists.  They raised her, so how has that affected Lucy?  Obviously Lucy has some pain from them not going with her.  What's her history with them?  And why aren't they storming Nullsville to find her?  Surely they'd get concerned with their daughter not communicating to them at all for months.  They've been writing their checks to the girl school Lucy was supposed to be at.  Hasn't that school told them that Lucy hasn't shown up?

My point is, this story should have been about Miss Weaver from the beginning.  Miss Weaver started the school herself by hiring scientists and having them teach in her school so that they can benefit from her "private experiment": research into coming up with a way to cheat death.  Miss Weaver did all of this because she was dying of siderosis and wanted to leave a legacy for herself.  She's so tired of living under her famous husband's shadow that she wants to become an evil scientist teacher so that all the world will remember her.  She turns her scientist comrades, nurse, and maid all into engineers with steam driven bodies so that they can live long enough to see her real work come into completion: removing the souls of children so that the engineers can use their bodies to live another lifetime.

Isn't that interesting?  Doesn't it sound like a pretty good basis for a story?  Of course it does.  Trouble is, Weaver is not the main character.  Lucy Snow is.  What do we know about Lucy?  Well, her parents aren't involved in her life, she's very sweet and also very naiive for her age, and she learns quick.  That's about it.  I don't know what motivates her, what she likes, or what she might want to be when she grows up.  Heck, I don't even know her favorite color.  The trouble with Lucy is that she's treated like a very generic character that would do basically anything a person is morally expected to do.  She's angry when she should be angry, she's whiny when she should be whiny, and indignant when she should be.  There's only a very little individual personality involved.

Also, I see in Rosca one of the signs of a flawed writer: the forcing of characters to do stupid/uncharacteristic things.  In Rosca's case it's generally more the stupid ones, and only in two characters: Lucy and Weaver.  This is bad because it means Rosca is willing to bend these characters just to make the plot go where she wants it too.  Well, you can only bend a character so far.

Like, for example, Lucy has a rival in the school named Summer, a minor antagonist.  Now, Summer, while a huge jerk, actually does have legitimate reasons to dislike Lucy.  Not only does Lucy show signs of besting Summer as the number 1 student, but she managed to avoid being sent to the windmill on the very Friday that Summer's friend Francine has the lowest grades.  If Lucy had performed just a little bit worse that first week of attendance, then Summer's friend would have been spared -- or at least lasted at least a week longer.  And then later on, Lucy does better on a school project than Summer.

However, after all that, Lucy is dumb enough to want to be friends with Summer.  Now, Lucy wants to take down the school and hopes that someone as smart as Summer can help her, but for one thing, if Summer is the number one student, why would she want to take down the school?  Also, if you've just totally outdone a person in a villain school and later that night they send you a note telling you to meet them, do you really think they have friendly intentions in mind?  Lucy, however, ignores both of these things and follows Summer to her secret hideout, where (surprise) Summer tries to kill her.  Yeah.

Normally, though, Lucy avoids being too dumb.  Miss Weaver is the person really making the mistakes.  Okay, so first of all, Weaver experiments on the children with the lowest grades, but up until Francine they've all been failures.  So what does Weaver do with the windmill children?  Leave them in the windmill to play about according to their own whims.  Huh.   That's....intelligent.

First of all, it's a waste of resources.  There's nothing you can do to stop a living organism from consuming.  They'll need food, or if they've been turned into machines they need oil and steam power.  Maybe gasoline.  You're still spending money merely keeping them alive.  Secondly, these kids are potentially dangerous.  At the end of the story they're going about at their own whims, escaped from the windmill and angrily protesting anyone who does something they don't like.  There's not even as much as a mind-control function on them.

So keeping them in the windmill doesn't make Miss Weaver look very smart.  So what should she do with them?  Well, she could destroy them.  Possibly they could serve as body parts for the gravedigging classes.  Or Miss Weaver could turn them into worker drones that keep the school grounds clean, prevent people from escaping, and rebuild the school when kids inevitably damage it.  There's a ton of potential uses for them.  Heck, Weaver doesn't even have to lie to the students.  She can just say, "get the lowest grades this week and you'll be one of my workers forever".  It's an evil villain school.  What else do they expect?

This, however, isn't the only case of Miss Weaver being dumb.  For one thing, when she finally manages to get her machine that puts the souls of the teachers into students' bodies, she has no protection for it.  Not only is the thing in a high tower where basically anybody who knows where it is can shoot it with a rocket, but the place isn't armored, it has no auto-cannons or other weapons, and there's not so much as a panel of glass between outsiders and the machine.  GENIUS.

Miss Weaver even said she "had a feeling this would happen" when the teachers, shown the machine, determined to fight each other to death over who would get to use the machine first.  So how about some defensive measures, then?  Sheesh.

Also, Rosca has described Miss Weaver as "prim" and "icy" in two of her quotes, but she's really neither.  Weaver actually comes across as domineering and somewhat goofy.  Now, I don't have a problem with Weaver being this way, but it's kind of bad that the writer doesn't really know her own character enough to understand how she comes across to readers.

Also, by telling too many flashbacks about Weaver, the reader has to see basically the same information over again when Lucy discovers this information later on.  It's generally not too good an idea for the main character to have to learn something the reader already knows.  It's one thing if the writer is trying to show the mistakes the lead character makes because they don't know, but if the information  is something the lead character will find out anyway, it's usually best to let the reader find out the truth when the main character discovers this for himself.  More mysterious that way.

Look, I could go on talking about flaws, but this post can't last forever.  Let me just say that the main problem with this story is the fast-paced nature that especially kicks into gear about halfway through.  Rosca is trying to go too fast with her story and tell us too much information at once.  She goes too fast through the demise of Weaver, particularly by making the teachers react so strongly to the possibility of getting a new body.  They just all start acting wild and senselessly, merely to give the story a more frantic edge and force the school to fall apart.  Seriously, when Lucy defeats Weaver, the tower they're in might as well have been made by Dr. Wily from Mega Man; as soon as the villain goes down, so does the building.  Seriously.

So my main advice to her is to slow down.  There is seriously so much wonderful plot potential in this story.  It could go on for several volumes and I would have read it all.  Trouble is. Rosca wrote only three volumes.  I have the bigger edition, so I have all three, but this story could have lasted longer.  Best yet, this would mean that Rosca could have the chance to slow down, explain her characters, and make the ending more enjoyable instead of everyone simply taking whatever action is necessary for the plot to go as planned.

Don't let me mislead you.  This plot has a lot of trouble, but that's like saying Mortal Kombat the movie has a lot of trouble.  It's still really enjoyable even still.  Seriously, read it.  You're probably going to like it.

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