The setting is the City. To us readers, it looks a lot like someplace in China's early history: from the architecture to the armor, clothing, and hairstyles. The City has had many different names over the centuries, depending on which group of invaders has conquered it, for it controls a strategic pass through the mountains to the ocean. Through every wave of invasion, the City's native residents bow their heads, bend their backs, and forge on as best they can.
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Gradually they do become friends, and Kaidu begins to know the city as Rat knows it, running along the rooftops and scrounging for meals. It matters not at all to him that they are from two different worlds. Worry not, though—this isn't a depressing, Fox-and-the-Hound scenario. When the two of them find out about a plot that could put the palace and the City's rulers in danger, their loyalties are tested, their abilities are stretched to their limits, and their friendship is at the heart of it all.
The way the author makes the City itself a palpable presence in the story—the City and its people, the Named—is an important and effective unifying theme. It also is a tidy way of emphasizing other elements that further deepen the story: sociopolitical themes like self-rule vs. outside conquest, as well as interpersonal themes like who is inside and who is the outsider, and what it means to be friends across a social divide, and what to do when you have competing loyalties: family, friends, nation. It is the kind of book that rewards thinking about it and re-reading it, because it is deceptively simple and yet multilayered. The characters become a central focus around which these larger themes revolve and are brought to vivid life.
Conclusion: I'm going to be shoving this forcibly into the hands of all of my comic-loving friends, because this one has a universal sort of appeal with its sense of action and adventure and humor. I'm also pleased to see it's only the first book, with more to come.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find THE NAMELESS CITY by Faith Erin Hicks at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you, starting on Tuesday, April 5th!