A few weeks ago I started The City On the Other Side in a foul mood. It wasn’t so foul that I couldn’t tell the book read like a dream but foul enough that I was glad to walk away, instead of mistrusting that this book could be as good as I suspected.
Isabel lives in San Francisco with her mom but is sent to stay with her father for the summer. While investigating a noise at night, Isabel finds she’s inadvertently crossed into the realm of fairies, something human beings aren’t supposed to be able to do. Rather than draw this world as someplace separate from our own, it’s more like it sits on top of ours. A building in one world is still a building in the other but looks different – another reality Isabel couldn’t see before.
More different still are the people. A war is underway between the Seelie and Unseelie fairies, and there’s a necklace that needs to be taken to the Seelie princess. After it’s discovered Isabel has some kind of magical bond with it, the task falls to her. With the help of a mushroom named Button, Isabel goes on an adventure, with Unseelie guards close behind.
Considering how contentious their relations are, you’d think there’d be an easy way to tell the two sides apart —to know who your enemy is – but it’s not like the Seelie have wings and the Unseelie don’t. Any sense of danger comes from Isabel being human, not being around one side more than the other.
Robin Robinson’s character designs are extremely diverse (Robin Hood hatted accordions!), though that they all fall under the label “fairy” can feel excessive. Then you get to the end and see the research that went into those designs (and what a smart decision, to package the research as a comic, so younger readers can learn what it takes to draw a world from scratch). In the face of so much creativity, how can you instill limits?
It traces back to what this story does so well – avoids out and out villains. If you can’t tell which side someone’s on, you can’t call them good or evil. That’s unusual enough for fantasy, but extends to Isabel’s home life, too. Mairghread Scott puts immense care into how she writes Isabel’s relationships with her mom and dad, who are divorced. Her mom wants them to move to Europe, which Isabel’s against, yet Scott makes sure we know her mom believes she’s doing what’s right. She isn’t willing to leave her daughter behind but doesn’t realize living in the same house isn’t the same as hanging out together. She’s flawed and oblivious but not cruel, and Scott takes the time to make sure we know that.
Along with finding creative ways to incorporate the page fold and gutters, Robinson is wonderful at finding character beats to match Scott’s words, like Isabel’s driver adjusting his rear-view window to check on her in the back seat, or a callback to a character who died at the beginning, who could’ve been forgotten. Instead they’re given tribute in a way that honors their sacrifice without becoming too heavy. It’s not easy to get the tone for a scene like that right but Scott and Robinson hit it on the nose.
Combining history (the earthquake of 1906) with unbridled imagination, The City on the Other Side is available now from First Second.
And to whichever member of the creative team is a Twin Peaks fan: a Bookhouse Boy salute for including the town on Isabel’s map.