Page 45 Review by Stephen
Halfway through this extraordinary graphic novel - and so the trilogy - there is a moment so shocking that I had to re-read it three times to ensure it had actually happened.
It actually happened.
Take nothing, and no one, for granted.
"What's your name?"
"Names are for people. I'm just street vermin."
"No one is street vermin. Under Dao law, all the people of the city are equal."
"You're very stupid if you think that's true."
Quite. Saying everyone's equal does not make it necessarily so. The American Declaration of Independence loftily stated:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
But by "men" it meant "white men" and certainly not women. Slaveholders signed as readily as anyone.
No one is treated equally in America, Britain, or anywhere else. The hierarchy remains absolute.
As with all Faith Erin Hicks books, this is a tale about friendships. So much time is taken to explore their nuances if new, or their history in the case of old acquaintances.
The above was eight years ago, with young Erzi - Prince of the Dao Empire and heir to the Nameless City's throne - riding alongside his father in a petal-strewn procession. I don't think you will find either of them "equal" under Dao law to the ragged, green-eyed street urchin he's just rescued from a beating by one of his soldiers. This was the even younger Mura: angry and defiant after being tossed out of The Stone Heart by its resident monks for trying to steal something they had long locked away.
She is the same Mura who now acts as Erzi's bodyguard after last volume's attempt on his life and that of his father, the General of All Blades. She is now stern and taciturn, ever so watchful with those piercing green eyes, and on each sleepless night she haunts the palace's library.
In THE NAMELESS CITY VOL 1 we learned that - sprawled out at the base of a vast mountain range, and surrounded on all sides by enemies with eyes set on conquest - The Nameless City straddles the River of Lives at the bottom of an unnatural gorge.
The Northern People who first built the city also carved that improbable passage through those enormous mountains, but no one knows how for their language is lost. However, in joining the river to the sea they ensured that this city, through which all commerce now passes, controls the flow of wealth. It is a city of a thousand names for everyone envies its strategic position and it has been conquered and re-conquered, named and re-named except by its native inhabitants to whom it is Nameless.
One of those inhabitants is Rat, a young athlete able to run across rooftops at blinding speed, which is how she first met Kaidu or Kai. Kai only arrived in the city four months ago to begin training as a rather reluctant warrior. It was the first time he'd met his father Andren, also a general, who now has a plan to form a unifying Council giving everyone a say - not just the Dao - in the city's future. Obviously the monks are keen, as is Rat who was brought up by them after the death of her parents. But the Dao have many enemies including the Yisun from whom they took the city, and they're refusing to come to the table. The pressure is on and time is running out.
Right, I think that's all the context you need, but for more hop back to THE NAMELESS CITY VOL 1.
As I say, like FRIENDS WITH BOYS, this is at its heart a book about friendships, and it has so much heart! Dozens of pages are devoted to sharing and caring enough to listen. You will, for example, finally find out what happened to Rat's parents after Kai finds a small statuette of them which Rat normally hides away. Hicks is a master of these natural conversational triggers, and the way confidences then impact on consequent behaviour.
She's also exceptionally gifted when it comes to exploring the joy, and sometimes initial difficulties, in being introduced to new friends for the first time. When Rat introduces Kai to Hannya and Iniko who are older, Hannya is open and solicitous towards Kai, encouraging him when he shows an interest in Iniko's string instrument and teasing Iniko about his own dubious prowess. Kai in return is delightfully self-deprecating, but Iniko remains wary, protective, defensive and even slightly resentful towards this son of a Dao general.
It's beautifully played by Hicks and colourist Jordie Bellaire who knows exactly how to flush a face in myriad different ways to denote tentativeness, bashfulness, awkwardness, embarrassment, shame, disdain and fury all in the same exchange after Kai finishes strumming.
"What's the song about? I've never heard it before."
"Oh, um... It's about a battle between the Yisun and the Dao. Uh, we beat them pretty badly."
"Pft. Even Dao music is about conquering. Everything is about violence. What they conquered, who they killed - "
Rat interrupts him.
"Iniko, stop it."
"I'm just saying -"
"And I said STOP IT."
As to the music itself, evoking harmony and melody, it swirls around the page in purple and pink in a way that put me in mind of Hope Larson, as did the first page following the prologue with Rat underwater before she bursts to the surface in an open air swimming pool reminiscent of Roman baths. The midday, summer-sunshine light is remarkable - with hot skin against cool blue and pale, cream-coloured stone - as is the sense of space the two artists create between them both there and throughout with wide gates, broad corridors and evening, rooftop views of a glowing city below.
Kai and Rat's new and unlikely friendship - between the conquering and the conquered - points to new hope for a far brighter future if Kai's father can fulfil his plan for a united council. Unfortunately unity will prove in short supply in the most extraordinary quarters, and there was something which Rat let slip out without thinking, which she probably shouldn't have.
"Sometimes I forget the monks have secrets they want to protect."