'The Nameless City' absolutely knocked me out. It was a fantastic beginning to what now appears to be a trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks, a writer and artist from Canada. That 'The Stone Heart' doesn't do as much in a similar page count is sadly inevitable because it's a middle volume, but it's still a barnstormer of a read and I can't wait to read the finalé.
The Nameless City actually has many names, each given to it by a conquering nation. However, after the actions of two children in the first book, Arik, the Emperor of All Blades, who conquered the city for the Dao, is open to a completely new approach. You see, one of those children was Dao, Kaidu by name and the son of Andren, one of his trusted generals, but the other was a street urchin called Rat, who is one of the Named, the people who live in the city but don't tend to factor into most people's thinking because they never conquered it. When they worked together to save his life, they also opened his eyes.
This new approach, proposed by Andren, involves setting up a council to run the city, which would feature each of the nations who periodically conquer it, as well as the Named who live there. It's a revolutionary idea, as everyone is well aware, and some are utterly against it, not least Erzi, Arik's son, who finds himself in an awkward position. He's Dao but he was also born in the Nameless City, making him at once part of it and apart from it. He has grown up expecting to inherit the city from his father and losing what he sees as his birthright is offensive to him. When he soon does what Dao are brought up to do, namely to use violence to solve any apparent problem, the fate of the city finds itself in the balance once more.
What I liked least about this book is that it doesn't tell a story of its own, stuck as it is as the middle book in a trilogy. The first was a neat riff on prejudice, which was apparent in every character, however good or bad we might categorise them. Here, that's replaced as a theme by selfishness and selflessness, which are two sides of a coin and which drive everyone in the story. Erzi sits at one extreme, killing to keep his birthright intact, and his bodyguard, Mura, isn't far behind him with her vengeance-soaked heart. At the other extreme are our heroes, Kaidu and Rat, who have strengthened their unlikely friendship since the first volume. The most telling line again goes to Rat, who unwittingly tells her friend a secret because, 'I forgot that you're Dao.'
The only other aspect I didn't like was another inevitability, namely that Hicks has to skip over a lot of what she might wish to use to build her story because of the length. This one runs almost 250 pages but that's not a heck of a lot of space for a small format graphic novel. Therefore she focuses in on the most important moments, the pivots for how the Nameless City will change, and documents those in her art. Were she writing a novel, there would be a lot more going on to underline how complicated this simple situation really is. She does as well as she possibly can here, but her page count is a hard mistress.
Paradoxically, given that I wanted so much more, I have to praise Hicks's ability to do so much in such a small space. Every character has depth, conflict and growth. How she uses these characters as avatars to paint the picture of a polyglot city without any real identity of its own is a magnificent achievement. I'm stunned at how far down she managed to condense emotion and action. Her biggest talent is to hone in on the purest essence of a place, a person or a concept, so that she can then use her considerable artistic talents to visualise it for us.
While I tend to praise her writing more than her art, the latter is highly worthy of praise too. Just as her writing is deceptively simple, so is her drawing. She has a real knack of wringing just the right emotion out of her characters, even without a lot of lines. This is a cartoonist's skill, but she's just as good at the placement of those characters, with some glorious backgrounds, not least the Stone Heart of the title, a tower, monastery and library at the heart of the city. We see fewer of the Nameless City's rooftops this time out, because there's more intrigue to explore and less parkour, but that doesn't mean we don't get to see the city.
We're two thirds of the way into this story now, which of course is merely an important moment in time for a city of great age. Its founders are long gone and it's been conquered over and over again, so history is nothing new here. However, I believe that I have a much better idea of where Hicks plans to take the trilogy, even though there were surprises here for me and I'm sure that there will be more to come in the final volume. There could, for instance, be a wildly different ending to the one that I'm expecting. I'm open to that possibility and almost hope that she surprises me.
Of course, only time will tell and it's going to be a long wait for the third book. I'm tempted to suggest to potential readers that they hold off on the first two until they can buy all three and devour the trilogy in a single sitting. However, I'm not sure that you'd forgive me! Both these books, 'The Nameless City' and 'The Stone Heart', are magnificent works, worthy of reading and re-reading, and you really should grab them as soon as you can. That way, you'll thank me instead. ~~ Hal C F Astell