The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, colors by Jordie Bellaire
There is a city by a hole cut straight through the mountains that has no name. Endlessly conquered, no one ever seeks to truly learn about it's people and it is instead used only for trade and power. Kai is from the Dao homelands, the city's current rulers, and he's always been fascinated with the city from afar and takes the chance to come and study with other young military trainees. But the city does not welcome Kai with open arms and resident Rat is suspicious of any outsider who comes to her city. They begin to understand each other however as the city reaches a critical turning point in it's history.
As I think I said before, I was surprised to hear that this series was going to be only three volumes long since as a manga reader, and this paperback is roughly the length of a manga volume, that sounds too short to tell a really big, plot-focused story. Knowing that, and seeing that the comic was rated middle grade instead of young adult didn't make me precisely lower my expectations but it did alert me that, even though FEH has talked about how she wants to tell a bit story, this probably wasn't my definition of big.
And it wasn't, there certainly is plot in the story but it really felt more like a character-focused story to me over everything else. Rat is a deuteragonist, a secondary protagonist who is not quite equal to Kai and it's through him that we see most of the story. It's a little amusing to have an Asian lead see an Asian setting/other Asian characters through the lens of "other" (I disagree with the folks who say this is a story of brown people enslaving white people, despite lacking the "traditional" visual cues of Asian characters in a western story* this looked like four different groups of Asian people to me) but it also highlights how, basic this story is in some ways. All we learn about the city is what Kai learns about it, which isn't much, as a reader you feel like a tourist, not a local.
Which means that I have to disagree with the multitude of reviews that speak about how wonderfully developed the city is as it's own character. Honest to god, I thought "you could replace this city with any other new city and it would have the same impact" since we know so little about it still by the end. And not in the good "we know some but not all" way, but the "okay but are The Named a completely separate group of people from the three conquering nations+the people who build the city or are they an amalgam of everyone as you would expect from a major trading port?" I saw an image recently about how writing about culture is like an iceberg, there's so much below the surface that not many people touch on (like, how people relate to their familial structures, how their religions view the world, etc) and all of that was missing here. I could hope that this will pop up in books two and three but this story acted as if it didn't even know these elements were missing so I'm not hopeful.
In the end, I'm lukewarm on the story. It's not bad at all for a middle grade tale, although certainly simple and I could easily feel a lot of FEH's influences (some ATLA for the action sequences, the noses felt Urasawa-inspired, some of the relationships between older and younger characters put me in the mind of FMA etc) which was inadvertently distracting for me at some points. So in some ways, I can feel myself preparing for another nice but not a charged, unique tale from the rest of the story. I can feel the story beats coming through the rhythm of the pacing and that bores me, even as a middle schooler that would bore me, but would I have been able to predict it so easily when I was in that target age range? I'm not sure, MG was really different back in the early-mid 2000s, so I can't even easily compare this book to my own experiences to see if I'm being too harsh on parts of it. But I, do think I would have still thought it was nice but just lacking something (that I now call depth).
*like, slanted eyes etc, I like that FEH avoided all of those while still making ethnicities clear! I think this particular argument stems from the fact that Rat is much paler in the original promo art than she appears on say the cover, although I'll also point out to folks that blonde hair totally occurs across the world, just like blue/green eyes can as well.
Also taking a moment to note that yes, the "enslaved person and free person meet" idea is overly cliched, to roughly describe the plot, so while I'm interested in conversations about different plots we can have instead that was not the conversation that sparked this part of the review.