The Nameless City Faith Erin Hicks Jordie Bellaire, color First Second April 2016 Disclaimer: This review was based on an advanced reader copy. The Nameless City is the first book in a planned trilogy by Eisner-winner Faith Erin Hicks. With a long resume of excellent books, Hicks has often targeted middle-grade readers, and they are
Faith Erin Hicks
Jordie Bellaire, color
Disclaimer: This review was based on an advanced reader copy.
The Nameless City is the first book in a planned trilogy by Eisner-winner Faith Erin Hicks. With a long resume of excellent books, Hicks has often targeted middle-grade readers, and they are the intended audience for The Nameless City. And, I’ll get it out of the way right now: there’s a definite Avatar: The Last Airbender vibe going on in this book, and it’s not entirely unintentional. Hicks has stated in interviews she was inspired by the series, and she has drawn at least one story in the Avatar comics universe.
However, it’s not derivative of Avatar—there are no magic powers, and the sense of spirituality that infused the first series is only hinted at. Instead, the similarities lie more in tone and aesthetic. The fictional world that holds the Nameless City draws heavily from the architecture and dress of thirteenth century feudal China. Hicks has clearly done research—the sprawling city is crammed with buildings that are strikingly detailed and the clothing clearly has been designed with care.
The art in the book is kinetic, busy in the ways a bustling city is busy. Each roof tile looks organic, and characters move dynamically, action helped along by chunky, bold inks. Jordie Bellaire’s coloring is paramount, giving direction and extra energy to Hicks’ detailed ink compositions. The backdrop of tiled roofs and street stalls exists as its own character element, bringing extra-energy to a somewhat predictable plotline. Each page of this book is clearly a labor of love by Hicks—not because it seems laborious, but because of how much consideration has gone into the composition of certain pages. The fight choreography is especially full of movement and thought.
The story focuses on Kaidu, a boy who has arrived at the Nameless City to train as a soldier. His mother has stayed behind to be a tribal leader, and his father, who he has never met, works in the government. Hicks gives the reader a lot of information about the history of the City, it’s people, and the class and caste conflicts that plague it in an easy way that never feels like an overwhelming info-dump. Kai comes from the same stock as the ruling class, who believe themselves superior to the citizens of their neighboring nations, as well as the oft-conquered population of the City. He meets Rat, a street kid who lives by her wits (and a little help from the local monk population), emblematic of the downtrodden “Named” population that tries to endure continued occupation.
The story of Kai and Rat is a mostly good-natured friendship being built between two kids from each side of the tracks—he steals food from the palace and she teaches him how to navigate the city as fast as she can. Rat is charming, but Kaidu sometimes feels flat. He’s meant to be a reserved character, but I found myself itching to know a little more about what motivated him. The book tries to incorporate nuanced views of who is “right,” politically speaking, by contrasting their worlds, but it feels rather pat at the story’s resolution.
The setting is immersive, and clearly a lot of research and thought was put into the world of Kai and Rat. But once I finished it, I had the distinct feeling of, “That’s it?” The book tells a complete, stand-alone story, but one that only scratches the surface of the political and cultural conflicts it sets up, and in some ways it feels like it uses the fantasy-historical setting to prop up otherwise unremarkable characters.
The plot engages with the structural components of thirteenth century China in a very literal sense—Kai wants to learn how to master running through the city and its rooftops from Rat. But they story never feels like it engages with its backdrop on a deeper level; Kai and Rat’s conflicts and friendships could be transported to any number of settings and read almost identically.
At the end of the book, I was asking myself why Hicks selected this particular time and place to establish her fantasy setting—what, besides cool tiled rooftops, led her to set her story there? And why did it seem like window dressing? To some extent, I wonder these things whenever I’m reading a white author’s take on a culture not their own. I don’t know that Nameless City answered these questions well; the setting seems like a shortcut to creating a fantasy world unfamiliar to most of its readers, rather than buoying the story and its messages. It’s fantasy, sure, but that doesn’t mean that cultural engagement doesn’t enrich a story and make these borrowed elements feel organic and necessary.
The political hierarchy established feels assembled from predictable stock—a wise ruler, a racist cavalry—without giving them any tangible cultural grounding or context aside from aesthetically.
Overall, The Nameless City is a solid middle-grade comic, with characters that I’m engaged enough with to follow into a second book. But it definitely feels like the first in a series and wasn’t nuanced enough for me to engaged with it beyond superficially. The disconnect between the story and the setting was jarring to me as a reader, and I hope that it resolves in future volumes—Hicks is talented enough to pull in more influences without allowing it to overwhelm her own storytelling choices. I need the story and the characters to engage beyond beautifully rendered architecture.