There's an old show-business saying that you should always leave them wanting more. Writer Mairghread Scott certainly does that here, with a story that fills just over two hundred pages of a graphic novel, but throws us into a world that could fill volumes. Its biggest problem is that it ends and so quickly.
We're in San Francisco soon after the 1906 earthquake and we're with a little girl called Isabel who isn't happy with her lot. For one, her parents live apart. Her mother is very much a part of high society and wouldn't dream of allowing her daughter to get dirty; that's what servants are for. Her father, however, is an artist and she would clearly be much happier living with him, if only he could take his mind off his work for a single moment. In her mother's company, she's stifled. In her father's company, she feels ignored.
One night, while staying with her father at his cabin in the woods (no, it's not a horror story), she hears a noise outside and naturally investigates. What she finds is a fae creature, Pista by name, who's stumbled into our world through the Veil that separates us from them. The fae are at war, with the Seelie against the Unseelie, and peace hinges on Pista getting a necklace, described as 'an object of tremendous power', from King Ro'hish to a general named Miyori, so that he can get it to Ro'hish's lost daughter, Id'naress, wherever she might happen to be. Only then can the princess end this war before it engulfs both our worlds. After all, we're given a whole new explanation for the earthquake here that is a powerful warning of what might come.
Unfortunately for Isabel, Pista is dying and promptly passes the quest on to her. Suddenly this little human girl, who hasn't found who she is in her own world, finds herself in another one entirely, of which she has no knowledge and no understanding. To suggest that she's a fish out of water is a vast understatement but, as tends to happen in stories like this, she soon finds herself acquiring friends as well as foes as she stumbles ever onward to both peace in this incredible land and the beginning of an understanding about who she is.
I liked this a lot but it's a very easy story to like. After all, I've liked it before in many other forms by many other authors. This is hardly new material. However, it's elevated by a strong sense of pace, some gloriously imaginative artwork from Robin Robinson, and a fascinating approach to the land of faeries, sourced not only from the traditional Celtic mythology that you might expect from an author whose first name is Mairghread (pronounced Mary) but from a wide variety of other cultures too. After the story ends, there's a four page coda hosted by Button, our mushroom spirit sidekick, that ably highlights some of this, including a jiangshi, the hopping vampire that I love so much from Hong Kong horror comedies; this is the first time I've seen one in a western graphic novel.
This multi-cultural approach is surely the biggest success of 'The City on the Other Side' and it's not just there in the supporting charactersthat jiangshi only shows up for a couple of panelsbut in the leads, too. Isobel's ethnic background isn't specifically outlined but she's clearly Hispanic, though brought up to speak English as any proper young lady would. The human thief she encounters on the other side of the Veil, who becomes a key part of her mission, is Benjie, a Filipino lad who was saved from the quake by Id'naress herself, who drew him out of the closet he was hiding in and over to safety beyond the Veil. And that's just the human leads; wait until you meet the faeries!
While this is an enjoyable read and a worthy one because of its broad outlook, it's still a simple story that few of us will not be familiar with. It's also short, those two hundred pages whizzing past like the dream they must have seemed like to Isobel, and it really could have done with being twice or thrice the length. As it is, it feels like we arrive in this fantastic land only to promptly leave it again because the book is done. As such, I hardly expect it to be anywhere near the top of my periodic re-read list, even just looking at books from First Second.
Or to phrase it another way, I often talk about how many of the books that First Second publish feel like they ought to be treasured, not just because of the quality of the stories or the artwork, but because of the quality of the publication itself too. This one doesn't feel that way. It's well designed and it puts the books of lesser publishers to shame, but it feels like just another decent book from First Second. It'll sit in my library on a shelf full of fantastic books from First Second that feel like treasures. It'll probably feel as ignored in that company as Isobel does when she competes with her dad's sculptures for his attention. ~~ Hal C F Astell