If Doctor Who has recently felt unsatisfying, or if you simply need something new  until the show’s upcoming eleventh season, Stranger Tales of the City is an excellent choice for a first foray into a deeper, stranger universe.

For the purpose of transparency, this anthology contains a story written by a fellow Nexus writer. I have not let this affect my review.

The City of the Saved is a spin-off of a spin-off. After appearing in the grand reworking of the Doctor Who universe, The Book of the War (2002), the City quickly proved to be as versatile a setting as its progenitor. The City contains the complete history of humanity, reborn in a haven perched between this universe and the next. As vast and varied as a galaxy-sized city suggests, the series is more of a ruleset than a strict progression of events. With Stranger Tales of the City (2018), a number of writers are handling this ruleset for the first time. Newcomers are joined by returning City writers, Kara Dennison and Jay Eales, and are helped along by editor Elizabeth Evershed. As the title implies, the common theme tying the resulting stories together is that of the stranger. Just as these writers carve out their own small niche in the City, so too do their characters. Are these newfound areas of the City worth exploring? Or should they be passed over in exchange for more familiar climes?

The anthology follows the newly-reborn members of the Knights Hospitalier through interludes written by Elizabeth Evershed. Each story is connected, in some way, to their reestablishment, and the quest to find one of their missing leaders. Though clearly not the main focus the anthology, the tale of the knights is a compelling story in its own right. There is a palpable sense of growth taking place between stories. As the anthology goes on, their interludes begin to feel like catching up with an old friend. Combined with the fact that there are no explicit narrative connections between the linking material and the individual stories, the anthology strongly conveys the City as a cohesive, vibrant whole.

As for the stories themselves, they are far more of a mixed bag. Backdrops, tone, and, most importantly of all, quality, shift wildly from story to story. A low-stakes character exploration set in suburbia leads right into a spaghetti western. This is not inherently a flaw, of course. Again, the City is a set of rules, and seeing the amount of possibilities afforded is interesting by itself. Even in the weaker stories, the City is an enthralling place. The anthology is even set up so to introduce concepts unfamiliar to a newcomer, before exploring them further in a different story. Everything from how life functions, and the population’s steady drift into various subcultures, to the living recreations of fictional characters known as Remakes. The biggest problem with the anthology is its inconsistent quality.

The anthology is a wonderful introduction to the world of the City.

‘Riding Shotgun on a Stage from Grief’ (Paul Hiscock)

The aforementioned spaghetti western, ‘Riding Shotgun on a Stage from Grief,’ is one of the anthology’s higher points. Rather than focus on the high-tension showdowns emblematic of the genre, writer Paul Hiscock creates a story around how pointless such an event would be in the City. When nobody can die, what is the purpose of a lone gunslinger? What results is a calm tale of campfire gatherings, and silent journeys through the wilderness. After establishing its main characters, much of the story is told through chance meetings.

The frustration of the impotent gunslinger is felt not only through his words, or even his actions, but the stories he finds in between his visits to the main character. We see him trying to impact the world in the only way he knows how, through his gun. Yet, the way each of these stories are told proves how fruitless this line of reasoning is. He damages an airplane as it heads toward town, yet the passengers are more concerned with the well-being of their vessel than themselves. Themes regarding one’s place in the world, and how to fit an existence that doesn’t initially feel right, are given time, thought, and respect. The final act is a satisfying coming together of character arcs with a surprisingly upbeat conclusion.

‘Riding Shotgun on a Stage from Grief’ is a wonderful story, and one that could only work when removed from the fast-paced expectations of Doctor Who.

‘The Wandering Child’ (Kara Dennison)

In separating itself from Doctor Who, the anthology finds its strength. ‘The Wandering Child’, by Kara Dennison, is almost entirely world building, and a fitting note on which to end the book. Centering on the lone follower of a minor religion from the old universe, the story captures the laid back, low-stakes feeling of the City perfectly. Even the tense coming together of character arcs, as seen in previous stories, are not to be found here. The conflict is purely internal, and concerns one of the larger inherent questions of the City. With the afterlife no longer an unknown, what is the purpose of maintaining faith?

Both the priestess Sute, and her religion are given considerable development. The daily rituals that Sute observes are given context on a personal level, a spiritual level as part of the lore of the religion, and eventually a third, literal meaning. However, as deep as the story’s lore goes, it is the lead character who truly steals the show. Sute is an engaging, fleshed-out character. Her relationship to her faith is explored from the moment she joins, and it becomes increasingly easy to understand why she continues to observe it. Even her position as the sole follower of her faith is explored, and her utter loneliness is palpable throughout the story’s latter half.

‘The Wandering Child’s biggest flaw, unfortunately, is that it is predictable. Many of the final scenes can be gleaned from the beginning. One late scene is clear to the reader, even as Sute fails to catch on, which is frustrating. However, while the overall meaning of the story’s ending is not too big of a surprise, it is still satisfying to watch various pieces fall into place. Sute’s fate, in particular, is a wonderfully optimistic, and truly feels earned after the story’s final act.

Both an excellent piece of world-building, and character study, ‘The Wandering Child‘ tackles the City of the Saved from a unique angle, and is all the more memorable for it.

‘Philology: The Real Professional Bag of Tricks’ (James Bojaciuk)

Another of the anthology’s high points is ‘Philology: The Real Professional Bag of Tricks, written by the Nexus’ own James Bojaciuk. Similar to Hiscock’s western, Bojaciuk focuses on a subject that only works this well in the pacifistic confines of the City: research. What begins with a single pair of researchers working to understand the basic language structure and artistic techniques of a near-extinct culture grows into an exploration of the inner workings of culture as a whole. There is almost no outright conflict in this story, yet tension is still created and built through a growing investment and understanding of character motivations. Thematically, the story is a spiral staircase; winding deeper and deeper, while appearing to retrace similar steps.

The story benefits from rereading. There is a palpable sense that there is more to be gleaned. Even as it depicts how frustrating research can be, the story instills a desire to learn more. As research into the culture progresses, we learn of the Jama’a customs, their past, and their present. As a people, they are slow to trust, yet noble to those who reach that level. This is clear from the moment we meet them, yet the extent of this character is only revealed as the story progresses. Even upon revisiting the story, the reader realizes how much they have learnt about the Jama’a.

‘Philology: The Real Professional Bag of Tricks’ is a deeply complex, and truly rewarding, story.

‘Buried on Sunday’ (Jay Eales)

Buried on Sunday’ continues on from the themes of ‘Philology’, yet comes at them from the opposite direction. Both stories concern themselves with the reestablishment of a little-known culture, but while the Jama’a are given resources and academic interest, the Spent are left to rot in the City’s lower reaches. Every moment serves to underline how unwanted the lead character feels.  Even when they begin to integrate with wider society, the act of doing so is met with violent protests from the supposedly more human citizens.

While the story depicts the pushback that certain cultures may receive, it also emphasises the importance of having these cultures come together. Though they are still not trusted by the City at large, the lead character is brought out of a lonesome existence. Rather than suggest personal acceptance is the answer to any feeling of solitude, the story understands the importance of finding one’s own family in a harsh, imperfect world.

After a series of positive outlooks on strangers in the City, ‘Buried on Sunday’ is a sobering, yet ultimately hopeful, reminder that not every race is allowed to flourish, even in the afterlife.

‘Farewell to a World’ (Alexandra Marchon)

Unfortunately, not all of the anthology lives up to this standard. The first story, ‘Farewell to a World,’ is a tough read. Writer Alexandra Marchon, in her attempt to produce a tightly-focused character drama, neglected to wrap that drama around a compelling plot. Much of the story sees its two leads sitting in empty rooms. Their conversations are mostly one-sided, and the character doing the talking is sadly not as interesting as the story thinks they are.

The problems of ‘Farewell’ all stem from its lacklustre plot.  With no clear progression of events to hold onto, the story tends to feel like a slog. Eventually, the theme of letting go past experiences in the face of new circumstances does emerge. This is a strong idea to work from, and fits both the City and the story’s position at the very beginning of its timeline. Sadly, this idea only manifests fully when it is too late to give it any depth. Though the word-to-word writing is to a high standard, this cannot save the inherent structural issues that plague the story.

‘Mourning the Story’ (Robert Shepherd)

What only makes this more frustrating is that the following entry, ‘Mourning the Story,’ feels like a far superior version of the opener. Both tackle the same themes, even sharing similar executions, yet the latter has far more to say, and is generally better written than the former. Rather than blandly restate the main character’s past, Robert Shepherd puts his lead through a seemingly ordinary event in their life, before using it to interrogate their personal flaws.

The suburban setting of ‘Mourning the Story’ gives a far stronger context to the characters’ actions than ‘Farewell’s inherently blank slate of a house. Ironically, by pulling back the laser-focus on giving its lead depth and humanity, ‘Mourning’ is able to outdo in five pages what ‘Farewell’ manages in almost thirty. The story also develops its predecessor’s themes into more of an explored idea. The lead is forced to question how their past affects their present and come to terms with how other people may deal with the same quandary. Though not quite a standout in the anthology, ‘Mourning the Story’ is nonetheless an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

‘Bubble People’ (Richard Wright)

The lowest point of the anthology is, unfortunately, Richard Wright’s ‘Bubble People’. Though exploring the absolute limits of subculture is a solid idea, much of the story demonstrates a lack of understanding of what it is trying to accomplish. Scenes are either slow and eerie, or filled with uncontrolled, fast paced panic. As a result, any attempt to build tension is ruined. The fact that this story also involves higher stakes than any other in the anthology lead to an experience that is near-impossible to get into.

This is only compounded by the ill-thought-out comedy, which permeates much of the story. Even as the quicker scenes attempt to make the stakes feel earned, they are undercut by dragging, repetitive jokes. The only instance of the comedy succeeding comes in the form of a Remake of King Richard III, who now works as a private detective.

The Remake is also the only time a character manages to come close to three dimensions. The main character is undoubtedly the weakest protagonist  of the anthology. When the reader is told that she is “an omni-directional force”, this only manifests in her tendency to shout at everyone around her, while nurturing her sense of superiority.

Bubble People’ is a poorly-planned curiosity. With further development, it may have made something out of its core concept. What exists, however, is the unquestioned low point of what the anthology has to offer.

Overall

However, a handful of less than excellent stories does not detract from the good that the anthology has to offer. The positives far outweigh the negatives. Furthermore, they are positives that could only be found here, in the City of the Saved. Evershed, Hiscock, Dennison, and Bojaciuk’s stories alone make the anthology worth reading, and are excellent additions to the Faction Paradox and Doctor Who mythos. Elizabeth Evershed proves to be an outstanding editor, who should handle more collections for Obverse.

There is a distinct flavour about the world and its stories, one refreshingly different to any other recent piece of Doctor Who media.

 

Stranger Tales of the City is not concerned with earth-shattering fights between good and evil. It is a book that thrives on the everyday. Veterans of the City shall no doubt find something to enjoy here, but it is newcomers that stand the most to gain. If Doctor Who has recently felt unsatisfying, or if you simply need something new until the show’s upcoming eleventh season, Stranger Tales of the City is an excellent choice for a first foray into a deeper, stranger universe.

Stranger Tales of the City can be purchased through Obverse Books’ website.

Will Martin

Will Martin

Will Martin originally hails from Liverpool, but now lives in Dundee, Scotland, whether his body clock agrees with him or not. Growing up, he was repeatedly told by his parents that Doctor Who would be 'right up your alley'. He hasn't asked them but he's quite sure they consider this a bit of an understatement.

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