I found this book in the manga section of Bookmans’ used bookstore. The gears on the cover screamed “steampunk” so I had to buy it. This volume is a compendium of the entire series, was published in 2009 by Seven Seas Entertainment. It’s not “authentic” manga in the sense that the creator, Madeleine Rosca, is Australian, not Japanese. It does have the classic anime format, reading back to front and right to left. Given the kawaii (cutesy) cover art, I feared it might be shlocky. But no, it’s funny, fast-paced and very entertaining.
The boarding school theme has lately become a trope in children’s and YA fiction, but Hollow Fields is not just another knockoff. Its title comes from its setting, a school for aspiring young mad scientists. Our heroine, the plucky young Lucy Snow (no relation to Jon or my own Centrifugal Force protagonist Nephi) arrives there by accident. She’s late getting to her real school and encounters Hollow Fields while taking a shortcut through the woods. Though she soon realizes her mistake, she also finds that this place has large private rooms, delicious dinners, and free tuition. All she has to do is sign a contract with lots of fine print.
Alas, when she realizes the true nature of Hollow Fields she discovers that students are forbidden to leave. It’s an unusual place, run by the sinister yet sexy Miss Weaver. All of the faculty (engineers) and staff appear to be ancient things kept alive by clockwork mechanisms. Classes include such mad scientist fundamentals as Grave Robbing, Killer Robot Construction, and Cross-Species Body-Part Transplantation. The students are even worse than the subjects, fiercely competitive and hostile to poor Lucy. Worst of all, those with failing grades are sent to detention in the windmill, from whence they never return.
Unable to escape or contact her parents, Lucy applies herself to her classes, enduring one disaster after another. When it appears she’s doomed to detention, she succeeds by pure luck. Later she finds an unlikely ally, a mysterious talking mechanical box that helps her with her projects. Thus she earns her fellow students’ grudging respect. But things are about to get worse. Miss Weaver and the engineers are hatching a nefarious scheme that endangers them all.
With all of Lucy’s exploits, Hollow Fields never gets dull. Normally I don’t like stories where characters survive by luck, but in this case, it’s done in a humorous, charming way. You can’t help but root for the adorably spunky Lucy as she faces insurmountable odds and “grows up” (emotionally and intellectually) in the process. The art style is very Japanese, a perfect blend between cutesy and creepy. The action-packed climax is a bit predictable (why do villains’ headquarters always have to collapse at the end?) but still satisfying. The book’s end matter includes a number of four-panel “gag” strips which I found to be quite charming.
In short, I loved this book! I was not surprised to see it’s spawned an online fan wiki. It really deserves to be made into an anime, but sadly, that seems unlikely to happen. I highly recommend Hollow Fields for kids of all ages and give it five stars out of five.