I’m late for “It’s Monday”. Our house has had a visitation from some sort of vicious stomach virus from hell. We are slowly coming out of it, but there are ramifications.
Recently, I had the chance to read The Nameless City (2016) by Faith Erin Hicks. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, and I liked The Legend of Korra, especially the last season. I mention this because the style Hicks uses, in this first in a planned trilogy, evokes a similar feeling. The setting, like The Last Airbender, is what I can only describe as “vaguely Asian-ish”.
There are three “tribes” of people who are constantly at war, and the main prize seems to be the City. For the last 30 years the Dao have controlled the city, but it is a tenuous hold. Aside for the warning factions, there are also the citizens that live in The Nameless City. They call themselves The Named.
The protagonists are Kaidu and Rat. Kaidu is a young man who has just arrived in the The City to begin his training as a Dao soldier and to meet his father for the first time. His father is a general, his mother is “tribe leader”. Rat, on the other hand, is a homeless orphan who fends for herself. She is s survivor, like most of The Named.
Rat agrees to teach Kaidu to run navigate the cities rooftops the way she does in exchange for food. Lots and lots of food. He learned a bit about the history of The Named, a continually conquered people and Rat learns that not all conquerers are comfortable with colonization. Rat, Kaidu and a Named woman who guards the prince, foil a plan to kill the Dao General of All Blades.
The Nameless City is a good book. The story is a good balance between friendship, discovery, and political intrigue and makes for a fast paced story. The full color illustrations communicate the action and emotion very well.
But, it is not a perfect book. I find it odd that as a book that features two strong female characters does not pass the Bechdel Test. The reason? The two female characters never talk to another female. Ever. When I realized this I looked more closely at the characters. It turns out there are 17 men who speak and 2 women who speak.
In addition to the issue of female representation, there is the issue of randomly using the “tribe” trope as a nod towards an indigenous community. There is no reason that I can see for patterning the Dao after some sort of tokenized Alaskan indigenous people. The Dao are shown with spears and fur and have leather boots but there isn’t really anything made of this “culture”.
Although I enjoyed the book, I can’t recommend it, because of these issues of representation. I hope the author takes the criticism in the way it is intended. I hope she adds some substantive female characters, and looses the vaguely “native” trope in favor of the political and cultural struggle she touches on. It would be amazing to see a graphic novel about a colonizing force and the people under it’s rule as they move beyond that power dichotomy.
2 thoughts on “Critical Reading: The Nameless City”
Faith Erin Hicks is one of my daughter’s favourite graphic novelists – and I did enjoy her Friends with Boys. I will most likely find this graphic novel to experience it myself – thank you for sharing your reservations about the novel.
I think Friends with Boys is a great example of her work that is done very well. And yes, as always, I encourage you to read and decide. Sometimes using a critical lens changes what we see.