The Stone Heart: The Nameless City Volume 2
The Stone Heart begins with hope of peace and a new era for the many inhabitants of the Nameless City, but new ways of interacting with people not like you threaten the privileged. It only takes one spoiled heir to make things terrible in Faith Erin Hicks’ fantasy adventure.
As can be seen from the description, although the setting of this trilogy is inspired by ancient China, there’s plenty relevant to learn while getting caught up in the events. I found myself nail-biting in fear for the characters, because they’re so real to me, thanks to Hicks’ writing. Kaidu, son of an occupying general, and Rat, scrappy orphan raised by monks, are growing in friendship together. Their willingness to learn about the other’s culture (and perhaps set aside some of the prejudice instilled in them, even when there’s good reason for it) is a harbinger of the bigger political picture, as Kaidu’s father works to create a council of the various nations that interact in the city.
The ruler is open to more diplomatic alternatives, but his son, born to solidify that tribe’s claim to the city, doesn’t like the idea of losing his special status, although he don’t have the wisdom or skills of his father. He’s unwilling to give up his privileges, going to extremes to do what he wants regardless of how horrible the outcome is for many other people. He’s got plenty who agree with him, too, those who don’t want to change the old ways they’re used to.
His bodyguard is another fascinating character, a villain with a more understandable motivation. Mura also took shelter with the monks as a child, as Rat did, but she was thrown out for breaking rules, which grew a bitterness in her that still motivates her.
Hicks’ art is wonderful for capturing the movement language of the characters. I was particularly struck by a scene where Rat and Kaidu dance and play music with two other young people. Aside from the expressions and grace of the motions, I realized that these kids were demonstrating the ability to reach beyond the boundaries of their parents. That’s why their cross-tribe friendships were such a threat to the establishment. Once you see other people are more like you than not, how can you be a willing fighter against those who are being attacked just because they’re different?
I’m pulling out the philosophical parts I liked best about the story, the elements that spoke to me, but there’s also plenty of action, suspense, and world-building, as the two friends visit the monastery and observe the political negotiations. At first, this book, the middle part of an intended trilogy, struck me as slower than the previous, but that’s what’s needed to build the stakes and give everyone more reason to fear for what’s going to happen. It’s breathing room between the introduction of the first volume and the resolution of the third, The Divided Earth. I gain new insight every time I read it. (The publisher provided a review copy.)