You see, everyone in the story is prejudiced, even though some might not believe that if I told them.
I've been raving for quite some time about the consistent quality and the glorious variety of graphic novels that First Second are publishing out of New York City. I'd heartily recommend 'Mike's Place,' 'The Sculptor' and 'Exquisite Corpse,' among others, but this is surely my favourite, thus far.
Eisner‑winning writer and illustrator Faith Erin Hicks is Canadian but 'The Nameless City,' as perhaps the name suggests, has a very Chinese feel through and through. It has a universal message to it, though, that is crafted impeccably. It's only book one in a series but, if Hicks were to stop writing tomorrow, it would stand strong on its own. I look forward to seeing what 'The Stone Heart' might bring to this imaginary world, but it's as much up to us to write the sequel in our own world as it is for her to continue.
The Nameless City of the title sits in prime real estate, as it's the one place people can travel to down the River of Lives and reach the ocean without having to climb over the mountains. That means that the wealth of the world travels through it and whichever nation controls the city controls that wealth. Needless to say, it's a pivotal location and that means that it gets conquered a lot.
That, in turn, means that the city has many names because each conqueror gives it a new one. Right now, the Dao, the warrior people of the Blade Empire, are in charge and they've held the city for thirty years. They call it DanDao, but it's also Yanjing, Monkh, Daidu and Cambuluc, amongst others. The people who actually live in the city let the periodic changeovers roll over them so that they can endure. They simply call their home the Nameless City and themselves the Named.
As nobody has ever managed to hold the Nameless City for more than three decades and enemy nations surround it, the Dao will surely soon face a challenge to their rule. The children of the elite are therefore being trained to fight by Erzi, the son of the General of All Blades, conqueror of the city. One of these trainee soldiers is Kaidu, the son of General Andren, whom he's never met, and he's one of our two leads.
We catch sight of the other when Andren takes his son into the city to attempt to instil in him how special a place it really is. He meets a Named girl, a daughter of the street whose her parents were killed by the Dao. She goes by Rat and she runs the rooves of the city using neat parkour skills. As Kaidu isn't much good at fighting, he wants to learn how to run like Rat and the two build an odd sort of friendship, an unprecedented feat that will lead to an unprecedented change.
To suggest that these two characters are superbly written is an outrageous understatement. The book runs a fast 230 pages or so and you wouldn't think that there was enough space to build in the sort of depth that Hicks achieves. Part of her success was to phrase them just right to begin with and let the story roll over them. Part of it was to define them both in two ways: by showing them develop and by showing them in the eyes of the other. That's a neat trick and it underpins the success of this book.
Kaidu is a tolerant boy who quickly defends Erzi's bodyguard, a girl who isn't Dao, to some of his more racist peers. He has no hate for Rat, another reason why they become friends, but, when she's asked about that, her words are very telling. He can't be a Dao, she explains, as she doesn't hate him.
Kaidu learns plenty as the book rolls on, from all sorts of sources: from Rat, from his father, from the General of All Blades, even from the monks at the Stone Heart at the centre of the city. We're left with the thought that if others can learn like him, this city might just end up with a name that sticks.
But he's still prejudiced, even if it's just through ignorance. He doesn't have a clue that Rat can't swim or read. His beliefs were shaped by his own upbringing. Rat in turn has no clue that Kaidu can run or be worth being friends with, because he's Dao and that's enough in her experience. Other characters have their own prejudices too, the most interesting of which is Erzi, who's stuck in between two worlds, being born Dao but in the Nameless City and so both belonging to both and to neither. Even those who are trying to leave war in the past by building a sustainable peace tend to only see the nations who periodically conquer the city and look through the people who actually live there.
It's a rare book where everyone's strengths and flaws are so well and yet so deceptively exposed. It makes us wonder how we might see ourselves, were we to step outside our own skins and discover an objective spot from which to look. We might believe that we're good people but that doesn't mean that we see how we could still grow. This book ably provides that big picture.
Hicks is an experienced writer, though she's done more work as an illustrator, in which role she was first published through First Second. However she created the 'Demonology 101' webcomic and has a string of books behind her, including 'Zombies Calling,' 'The Adventures of Superhero Girl' and 'Friends with Boys.' I'm eager to see if any of them can stand alongside this one. If they can just hold a candle to it, then they're worth reading. ~~ Hal C F Astell