The Nameless City
Now that I think of it, Faith Erin Hicks may be the most consistent comic creator I’ve known. Every one of her written and drawn graphic novels, I’ve enjoyed (even the zombie one), and half of the ones she drew but didn’t write. That’s a remarkable track record, since, depending on how you count, this is her 11th book.
To be honest, I feared that this one might break the streak. The Nameless City is a fantasy adventure in an invented land with different tribes and histories. I’m not a big fan of such tales, but Hicks’ character-building and artistic motion is so compelling that I was drawn in. She does an amazing job of layering story elements, too, with both obvious themes — a boy learns to think for himself instead of accepting whatever he’s told — and more subtle ones, about the value of diversity and the fun in pricking the self-importance of authority.
The Nameless City is so-called because every different tribe that’s tried to take and hold it has given it a different name. The people that live there, though, keep their heads down and try to go about their lives without getting caught up in the ever-changing politics and wars. (This is very much a modern fable, since there isn’t a Right and a Wrong or a Fated Tribe to retake the place. It’s much more complicated, mature, and compromised take on such things.)
Kai has been sent to the city as a child of privilege. His father, whom he’s never met before, is a high-ranked general, part of the occupiers. Kai would rather read than fight, though, so he often plays hooky from his military training to go exploring with his prickly native acquaintance, Rat.
Rat and Kai slowly develop a friendship, as you’d expect in this kind of tale, but the way it happens is realistic and relies on shared learning about each other. There’s also an undertone of how difficult it can be to live between worlds. One adult is from the tribe of leaders, but he also one of the first of the next generation, born and raised in the city, so he is both and neither. Similarly, Kai is an explorer, not a soldier. He seeks to understand and accept the different instead of subjugating it.
Hicks’ art is amazing, particularly in the many scenes of the kids racing through the city and over the rooftops. That’s the simplest level of enjoyment of this book, the timeless adventure of running free and having the world at your feet, the immortality of the young.
The Nameless City is an outstanding work of created anthropology. I haven’t seen such detailed world-building in comics since Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder. It’s a cliche to note this, but the location is as much a character as any of the cast, and Hicks draws it in astonishing detail.
The realism of the politics here is shown in how it intrudes on the kids’ lives in uncomfortable ways at unexpected times. They have other, daily concerns, but the environment they’re in affects them as well. That makes the note of hope at the end all the more affecting, in that it doesn’t feel like an artificial happy ending.
The Nameless City is truly a work for all ages. For kids, an adventure story with plenty of action in a imaginative setting. For adults, a parable on how rules have to change in a more diverse world, with different traditions and expectations forced to co-exist.
A followup book, The Stone Heart, is planned. Thankfully, this book is a complete read in itself in spite of the series plans. (The publisher provided a review copy.)