The City on the Other Side, by Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is one of history’s canonical disasters for a reason. I myself have stood and looked at a place where the fence line was dislocated several feet from where it had been, because the fault line had moved by that much; the city was in flames and rubble for days afterward, and it took much longer than that to clean up. Scott and Robinson have used this as the inspiration for their children’s fantasy comic: what if that natural disaster was not natural at all, but the result of a rift in the fairy kingdoms? What if the Seelie and Unseelie courts were warring and caused the quake?

That’s the backstory here, not a spoiler for this volume. This volume is a kids’ graphic novel about the fallout. It’s about a wealthy Latinx human girl, Isabel, ignored by her separated (divorced?) parents, who stumbles into the fairy war still raging after the earthquake, picks up a talisman, and finds she can use it when no one expects her to be able to. She crosses between the human and magical worlds and forms friendships and alliances with people of various shapes and species. They are chased back and forth across the worlds, and Isabel has to help find a lasting peace for both worlds, for humans, Seelie, and Unseelie.

It’s reasonably pretty, but if the plot sounds kind of generic to an experienced reader, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of “oh yes, one of those” going on here, and the San Francisco setting feels more phoned in around the edges to me than vivid–there’s not a lot of vivid “definitely San Francisco/Carmel/Northern California” art here. There is an attempt to show the diversity of the city even as of the early twentieth century, both on the human side and on the magical side, but that’s entirely visual. The plot and characterization are just…fine. They’re fine. And once again I’m reminded that the audience for this is kids, so this may be where they learn how the shape of this plot goes. This may be their first trip through this plot. And yet on the other hand…there are other kids’ books that still manage to do something that isn’t cookie-cutter, so…this one is fine. Not likely to offend, but not likely to stick with you long either.

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