Bullying, gender, and the importance of horses – or, more of why I love sf/f
There are spoilers ahead, though I try to avoid the biggest ones.
I was predisposed to love this series before I read the first bopok, after hearing the author explain that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they had a world-saving adventure but then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again! And as a kid I had felt exactly the same way as I reached each of various fantasy books that I read.
When Seanan McGuire explained how she came to write the award-winning first story in the series, she mentioned specifically the original My Little Pony cartoon as one of her inspirations. I was exactly the wrong age when the original series came out, but the more recent My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series roped me in. So much so that for several years now with a group of friends I have been running a tabletop roleplaying game using the Fate system to run a campaign in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic universe, with the twist that we are crossing the series over with the Cthulhu Mythos (with a heavy sprinkling of things like Ash vs Evil Dead).
The upshot of all of this is, that once the title of the sixth book, Across the Green Grass Fields and the official blurb was released, I was essentially vibrating in great anticipation for the book. Because it was going to be about kids crossing through a portal to a world of adventure, but also specifically the original world which had inspired the author to start the series. So since this story would be about the aspect of this theme about which the author feels most passionate, presumably it would be one of the stronger entries in the series. Given that the fifth book was “merely” Really Good, but was therefore a letdown (for me) from the Stupendously Incredible that was the fourth book, I really wanted this book to wow me.
So, the book follows a young girl named Regen—who happens to be really into horses—who is having a bit of difficulty navigating grammar school. She had two very good friends, until one of those friends did something which the other friend felt wasn’t properly girlish and thus needed to be shunned. Regen feels very badly for the shunned friend, but also feels she can’t risk losing the regard of the bullying friend. There is some discussion to be had about whether deciding to stop being friends with someone should be regarded as bullying, but I’m afraid I come down on the side of the shunned girl’s mother that this behavior is a form of bullying.
Some years later, Regen begins feeling more insecure around her remaining friends because they seem to all be going through puberty and she isn’t. When she talks to her parents about it she finds out that she is intersex, specifically she has androgen insensitivity. They explain how the doctors discovered it, and reassure her again and again that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong with her. It’s just she won’t undergo puberty on her own, but she can with hormone replacement therapy.
This revelation bothers Regen even more. The next day at school she makes the mistake of telling the bully who she thinks is her friends. This does not go well, and she flees the school grounds, intended to go the long way back home. In the wooded area she is walking through toward home, she finds a mysterious door, which she goes through, and she winds up in another world.
She meets some of the inhabitants (a family of centaurs), and is informed that whenever a human comes to the Hooflands (which is what they call the world) something big will happen, and the human will save the world. Regen doesn’t want to save the world, particularly when she hears some of the stories of humans who came before her who all disappear after saving the world.
The Hooflands are inhabited by a lot of mythical creatures, all with some kind of hoof or other. The unicorns seem to be dumb animals (and are raised as livestock to be eaten by the centaurs). There are kelpies, fauns, perytons, and so forth. Some of species do not get along with others. Kelpies, for instance, are describe as mindless beasts and monsters.
Regen lives with the centaurs for a time. The happy family is disrupted because the Queen of the Hooflands puts a bounty on Regen. The centaurs relocate to a place where they think the Queen can’t find them and live there more or less happy for several years. Until it becomes clear that the Queen is evil and is hurting the other inhabitants of the Hooflands, so Regen sets out to try to save the world (without vanishing afterward).
There was, for me, a big problem with the book. The opening chapters, while Regen is dealing with the difficulties at school and discovering that she is intersex and so forth was extremely compelling. You know how some people yell at the TV when a character does something foolish? I was talking to the book when it became clear that Regen was about to tell the bully about her gender. I knew it was going to go badly, and McGuire had me on the edge of my seat about how badly it would go and what happened next.
But, again, this is how I experienced the book, not long after Regen arrived in the Hooflands almost all dramatic tension evaporated. I literally fell asleep while reading the second half of the book. Twice. It took me two more days than it ought to have to finish it because it just wasn’t grabbing me.
I’ve read other reviews of people who absolutely loved the book and found it rivetting to the end. The writing is good. There is not a big glaring plothole or anything like that. I just wasn’t able to make myself care about what happened to the Hooflands. I kept wanting to know what was going to happen when Regen got back. It just didn’t feel like anything important was at stake within the Hooflands part of the story.
This doesn’t mean that the book was badly written. It means this falls into the category of books that aren’t for me. This is not the first time that I have encountered this phenomenon with an author whose stories I otherwise adore. For whatever reason, this one didn’t grab me.
And I’m not happy about that! Because I really wanted to adore this book. I wanted it to move me the way book four did.
I might try to re-read it again later. Maybe I was just not in the right place mentally that week for it to resonate for me.
I still highly recommend the series. As mentioned above, there are people out there who absolutely loved this one. So maybe you will, too. I’m still looking forward to the next book. I hope it’s one that grabs me.