This collection of three short stories features as its centrepiece a Gothic city named Marcheval and the book is sheer fantastic Gothic splendour, with Splashes of Fantasy.
Marcheval has elements of the modern and many more elements of the past, of slums and unscrupulous chaps and great fortunes gone to rot. It is atmospheric of a time while being out of time and has a grand sense of place. The windy streets and fantastical elements (including strange and new fantasy variants on human looks and skills) are carefully wrought and were vivid in my mind throughout, without the prose turning too purple. In some ways more than this old city, filled with large houses, old families and strange religious practices, the thread that links these three short stories together is the characters. All three stories have a central female protagonist who faces something awful and deals with it outside the box of normal, in a deliciously dark way. Without giving too much away, I can tell you the first story ‘Not Stopping at Heaven’ involves an unexplained childhood tale of horror which brings a horrific, animalistic power into play. The story appears to have a strong moral about what not to do in marriage, and how even the downtrodden should be treated well. You never quite know who has a secret weapon up their sleeve. The second story, ‘Idoll’ has a more ritualistic core, and tells of a spooky rich family with a secret hidden in their attic. They are typical of some tropes in that they look perfect on the surface and yet underneath they are more than sinister, like overlords with a puppet that helps bring their needs to fruition. The family adopts a distant relative and soon take advantage of her presence. The girl is quite passive in her approach to fighting back for my taste so the ending was not quite as satisfying for me as it could have been, but it was realistic for a time where women are second class citizens. The final story, ‘The Portrait in Grey’ reminds me of the worlds Dick Van Dyke chalked on the pavement in Mary Poppins, only here the images are done in the blackest of charcoal and without musical accompaniment, discounting maybe a good, dramatic fugue. The final story is of pure, and utterly complete, revenge, then washing the offender away as if they are nothing. Quite cathartic. All three stories have strong morals. Revenge permeates them, as well as a stewing inner anger at the injustices the characters face. These are not stories meant to produce cheer. These are stories I found myself smiling along with, in satisfaction at the often violent and final endings rather than any happy sentiment. Uncomfortably, my reactions sometimes made me think of what the audience at a stake burning could have looked like, or the cheering crowd in a coliseum as the thumb was turned for death. These are stories that delve into the underbelly of an alternate world and cut the malign up to be eaten by the carrion, socially, mentally and physically. A great nightmare to enjoy from the safety of your sofa.
If forced to rate A Different City, I would give it 4.5/5 stars, if we're allowed halves, or 5/5 if not.
(I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review)