The Nameless City in Faith Erin Hicks’ graphic novel of the same name has been conquered and re-conquered and overthrown so many times that the natives no longer try to keep up with the latest titular revision. They keep their heads down and let the waves of occupiers wash over them. Enter Kaidu and Rat, young occupier and young native, respectively. They have nothing in common and every reason to dislike each other, so, of course, their paths immediately and inextricably cross.
Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will make immediate connections between The Nameless City and the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se with its vast urban sprawl, distinct socio-economic strata, claustrophobic separation from the outside world, and ever-present political upheaval and intrigue. We don’t have Avatar‘s spiritual and supernatural themes in Hicks’ story, but we find are the same underdogs struggling to steer through vast political forces and young people assuming responsibilities usually reserved for more mature and experienced adults.
The first installment of a promised trilogy, The Nameless City offers a basic set-up for the characters, relationships, and political intrigues for coming volumes. As such, the plot development feels light. We have hints at potential side stories that may be promising, but none moves very far past the starting gate. We see glimpses at motivations and intentions, but do not delve to far into any of them.
The center of the story is the relationship between the two young protagonists, Kaidu and Rat. Their relationship follows the familiar arc of strangers from radically different backgrounds…the bungled first meeting, initial distrust, eventual discovery of mutual interests, and inevitable arrival at an amicable relationship. A considerable portion of this first volume pays attention to this burgeoning relationship which progresses at a steady, if somewhat predictable, pace.
As usual, Hicks nails the youthfulness and energy of her main characters. Kaidu is the quintessential outlier, with a sense of curiosity and self-possession that separates him immediately from his predictably bullying peers. Rat is the distrustful, independent orphan who puts up a front of aloofness that is almost immediately belied by her inherent sense of fairness and loyalty. They find middle ground in a mutual need for freedom and a love of extreme parkour. (Therein lies many of the the most engaging bits of the story.)
Throughout The Nameless City, Hicks’ artwork feels mature and pristinely composed. The city is richly and painstakingly detailed. Hicks depicts sweeping urban vistas that bring home to the audience just how claustrophobic this urban environment is. The careful composition, however, ultimately works against the intent of the story. The overall orderliness of the city environment – clean streets, clear skies, scenes with few bystanders – all served to keep me from quite buying into the oppression and tyranny the natives of The Nameless City are supposed to suffer under. Likewise, the simple and predictable nature of the plot left me searching for more intrigue, more tension, and more entanglements between the characters.
In the end, I was left with the feeling that I have seen these players and their story before. I am drawn to the beautiful world Hicks has created but am looking for more squalor and more chaos, in the visuals as well as the story. The Nameless City doesn’t bring its audience too far past the introduction phase, either in plot or character development.
I’m hoping Hicks can succeed in bringing the same kind of coming-of-age emotional rawness that we’ve seen in her earlier works to future installments of this series, as well as a level of tension to match the beauty of the world she’s created.