Two years after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a potentially greater disaster looms behind the veil of sight. The Seelie and Unseelie, rival Fairy kingdoms, engage in a conflict which threatens the city’s very existence. All this is unknown to San Francisco’s human population including young Isabel, whose high-society mother keeps her sheltered from the life of the city. But then Isabel is sent to stay with her sculptor father, and her clean and orderly world is changed forever. When she discovers a fairy in the woods, the fairy’s magic necklace transports Isabel to an adventure like she’s never experienced before. Along with an orphan thief named Benjie and a mushroom fairy named Button, Isabel must return the necklace to its rightful owner, restore peace between the Fairy kingdoms, and protect the city of San Francisco from disaster.
The City on the Other Side features likable main characters of diverse origins: Isabel is Latina and Benjie Filipino. Each plays the reluctant hero in various ways, as Isabel is freed from her strait-laced upbringing to discover courage within, and Benjie realizes he can be something greater than a thief. Neither character is developed much beyond these tropes, but they still provide positive representation of the diverse peoples of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Readers are given assistance with Spanish terms in the text which are defined the first time they appear.
The full-color illustrations utilize a variety of panel structures from simple to complex, and the mood of scenes is often conveyed through the layouts. Full-bleed pages and artistically-framed panels help define the transition between the real and fairy worlds. The creatures which populate the Seelie and Unseelie kingdoms are cleverly derived from the natural world, comprised of a variety of plants, animals, and even fungi. The variety of fairy characters can make it difficult to distinguish the Seelie from the Unseelie at first. However, a few key characters begin to stand out on each side as the story progresses, keeping key plot elements relatively clear.
While the story is set in a particular time and place, few landmarks or events other than the earthquake and resulting fires are mentioned. It is possible for readers to enjoy the book without any knowledge of the historical setting. However, for readers interested in learning a bit more, an afterward entitled “Button Knows Everything” is included which explains the historical and cultural context of early twentieth century San Francisco.
The City on the Other Side will appeal to middle grade readers interested in fantasy and adventure, as well as those who enjoy historical connections. This title is also a good read-alike for fans of the 5 Worlds series.
The City on the Other Side
by Mairghread Scott
Art by Robin Robinson
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12