The Nameless CityCanadian cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks’ first foray into historical fiction, begins quietly enough: Kaidu, a young Dao boy, has just arrived at The Nameless City, so called because it is routinely conquered by surrounding nations, every one of whom give the City a different name that the native people quietly ignore. Kai has left his tribe in order to train with the Dao army, and, more importantly, to reunite with his long-absent father.

Alas for Kai, soldiers occupying another nation have little time for establishing a rapport with their children, and Kai’s mildly pacifist tendencies don’t help him make any friends when he begins training. Lonely and largely left to his own devices, Kai attempts to explore the city on his own and becomes lost. Unpleasantly, he discovers that being part of the occupying nation means that the city’s natives are unwilling to help him. It is likely the first time in his life Kai has encountered simmering resentment, and it takes him by surprise.

His peregrinations are resolved when he encounters a street girl named Rat. Initially flat-out antagonistic, Rat and Kai eventually bond over parkour and stolen food: she’s an excellent rooftop gymnast and knows her way around; Kai offers to feed her in exchange for lessons. The two develop a mocking but affectionate friendship, the ramifications of which become more serious after Rat demands a pair of boots. Kai steals them for her, but later takes them back, fearing for Rat’s safety if she’s found with Dao possessions. The potential fallout from this situation is a shock for both Kai and the reader. Up until this point, the stakes have seemed relatively low.

At this point, the story begins to explore the quiet, insidious nature of life in an occupied city. In the current climate, Kai begins to realize, Rat’s life is worth less than his own—and even some Dao soldiers are unhappy with the status quo. It’s not a complete paradigm shift. Kai still yearns to prove himself to his father, and he maintains great respect for the general of the Dao, but he begins to understand that stirrings of rebellion and turmoil exist beneath the city’s apparent tranquility.

Hicks is a sophisticated storyteller and her artwork is dense with information. Stylistically, her work is an appealing mashup of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. Her characters have rapid and distinct facial expressions, and the surrounding scenery and architecture allow readers to experience some of the awe Hicks’ characters do. Additionally, Hicks’ artwork is anything but static; since the bulk of the first installment is spent running and somersaulting pell-mell across red-tile roofs, this fluid approach is especially welcome. It’s easy to follow the visual narrative and the characters are visually distinct, with their own facial characteristics and body language.

Much of the story’s initial lightheartedness is a result of the thorough introduction to this world, with the major plot points all taking place only in the last third of the book. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; but it makes the wait for the second installment feel that much longer, especially since so many events—including the fallout from an attempted assassination—are introduced and then left unresolved. Older readers looking for something to sink their teeth into might do better to wait until the second volume is released, but Hicks’ delicate way of exploring justice, friendship, and postwar tension make The Nameless City a good choice for younger readers looking for a vaguely fantastic setting with plenty of worldbuilding.

The Nameless City, vol. 1
by Faith Erin Hicks
ISBN: 9781626721562
First Second, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13

  • Katie Rose McEneely

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support!

Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!