CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 39. . . .June 16, 2017
The Stone Heart. (The Nameless City).
Faith Erin Hicks. Color by Jordie Bellaire.
New York, NY: First Second/Roaring Book Press (Distributed in Canada by Raincoat Books), 2017.
256 pp., trade pbk., $20.99.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
On our eighth day in the Nameless City, my traveling companion happened upon some of his people, far from their homelands. They had traveled miles to buy and sell in the city. It was a common story, repeated by many we spoke to. The Nameless City is different from the many cities we passed through on our journey down the River of Lives. The City does not have a single population. Rather, it is filled with many populations from many different nations. I had to ask: Who does the City belong to? Who are its rightful people? Asking this led to some disagreement. It was my traveling companion who described it best: The builders of the City, the only people who could truly claim it as their own, were long gone. What remained were the people who lived in the city. Many people. Many different nations. All called the City their home. And who could say that any of them were wrong?
The Nameless City is situated on a delta, divided in two by the River of Lives. Beyond the City are the homelands of two tribes, the Liao and the Yisu, and across the sea lies the lands of the Dao, a bellicose tribe who are currently in control of the City. It’s a fictional place; the City’s architecture is Northern Asian, and the story takes place centuries ago, perhaps in the Medieval centuries. As the book opens, Kaidu, and his friend, Rat, are having relaxing time at a rather luxuriously-appointed swimming pool. Kai is the son of a Dao general while Rat is a skral, a former street kid, orphaned when her parents died at the hands of Dao soldiers. They are an unlikely pair, but they became friends during their adventures in The Nameless City, the first book in Faith Erin Hicks’ trilogy of the same name.
Pool time is interrupted by the arrival of Syona, leader of the monastic order of the Stone Heart, who is heading a delegation to meet with Arik, the General of the Blade Empire. The General has just concluded a heated discussion with his son Erzi, who chafes at being under constant guard and is totally dismissive of the General’s plan to form a Council of Nations, a concept promoted by Kai’s father, Andren. Usually, it’s the older generation which is resistant to change, but, in this case, it’s Erzi who claims that the plan is “absurd. It will do nothing but hurt the City.” (p. 18) In fact, the concept hurts him; he still remembers when, as a 12-year-old, his father took him to the city walls and promised him that everything would be his. Now, he feels that Arik has reneged on the promise. However, the General ends the discussion, not only to meet with Syona and her delegation, but also to thank Kai and Rat for having foiled a Dao plot to assassinate him, an event which concluded The Nameless City. It’s a tense meeting, with an anxious and intimidated Rat standing behind Kai, clutching his shoulders for emotional support.
As Kai and Rat leave the palace precincts and wander back into the City, their mood lightens, but not before Rat discloses that “the monks have secrets they want to protect.” (p. 34), a comment which follows after learning that one of the guards from Arik’s party, Mura, used to live in the monastery of the Stone Heart when she was young. Mura was banished from the palace when she attempted to steal something from the monks. The comment weighs on Kai’s mind as he heads back to the monastery where Rat lives. Despite having passed a delightful afternoon with her City friends who are musicians and acrobatic street performers, Rat is preoccupied, wondering about the future: “Do you think this council of nations will actually happen?” Kai replies that his father has been working on it for months and that the “biggest problem is the Yisun nation. My dad has been trying to talk to them for two months, but they keep refusing to meet with them. The Yisun and the Dao have been enemies for ages. I guess it’s hard to undo hundreds of years of hostility.” (p. 54) Sitting in Rat’s room, Kai’s gaze falls on a trio of carved figures, a family grouping of a mother, father, and a little girl. They are a replica of Rat’s family, carved by her mother. She then tells Kai the story of her parents – her father was a Yisun, while her mother came from a westerly island nation – who met in the City, fell in love, married and remained in the City where Rat was born. Rat’s father “sold weapons. It’s illegal to sell them in the City, under Dao law" (p. 58) and that led to his arrest by Dao soldiers. After hiding at the back of the shop for three days, waiting for her mother, Rat gave up and went to the Stone Heart where she has lived ever since. Originally named for her grandmother, after her parents’ death, she assumed the name of Rat. Kai is shamed at the knowledge that soldiers of his nation are responsible for the death of Rat’s parents, and he runs back to his own home, bursts into his father’s room, and proceeds to ransack his father’s closet, finding a Dao soldier’s uniform. Was Kai’s father one of the soldiers responsible for the arrest and probably death of Rat’s father? Kai seems to think so.
Now, it’s Kai’s turn to be preoccupied. Unable to sleep, he heads to the palace library where he finds Mura, awake and reading. Kai pulls out a huge stack of books, bent on finding out the history of the builders of the Nameless City so that he can help his father’s plan for the council of nations. The northern people had some sort of power, the “ability to tunnel through the mountain and build the passage to the sea.” (p. 73) If the Dao had this power, Kai believes that other nations would join the council and there would be a better future for the city. What does Mura know about all this? She’s heard a variety of legends but believes that the Northern people’s power was “fire and destruction. [That they] had a formula that could summon a terrible fire. A fire so powerful it could burn through stone and flesh... Somehow, this formula was lost. The empire of the Northern people collapsed, and they vanished. Some think the formula was deliberately forgotten, to keep it from being misused.” (p. 75) She claims that the monks of the Stone Heart believe this legend, but now, no one can read the language in which the formula was written. Then, there’s a flashback in the story, to a time eight years past, when Arik is riding his horse in a triumphal procession, accompanied by his guards, and Erzi. One of the guards kicks a skral to the street curb, claiming that the girl attempted to steal from him. Erzi, disturbed by the incident, takes pity on the girl, requesting that she be taken back to the palace for medical help. The guard is plainly unwilling, but, because Erzi is a prince, the guard complies, grumbling that there’s “something wrong with that boy. Almost like he ain’t Dao.” (p. 85) The girl is Mura, green-eyed, red-haired, and as readers learn later, a woman warrior who swings a pretty mean sword.
The Stone Heart is a story full of conflicts, both personal and political. And the formula for that destructive fire isn’t the only secret; everyone seems to have a secret of some sort. Rat suffers from abandonment but has found a home with the monks and friends amongst other denizens of the Nameless City while Mura seethes with barely repressed rage which she channels into her role as a guard in Arik’s household. As for the two privileged sons of the ruling Dao elite, Erzi feels betrayed by his father’s diplomatic plans while Kai feels ignored by a workaholic father, a Dao general who is completely focussed on creating the national council so as to avoid the endless “cycle of invasion and war that’s been part of City life for centuries.” (p. 105) Kai is concerned that his father’s plans for the council will fail, but Rat tells Kai that she is willing to do whatever she can to help bring about much-needed change. The key lies in knowledge of the secret language of the Northern People; Rat knows that the monks know that language, although the moment she tells this to Kai, she regrets having disclosed the fact: “I forgot... That you’re Dao.” (p. 104)
Meanwhile, Arik’s son has become frustrated at the impending collapse of his future as the ruler of the City, “named by birth and Dao by blood”, not “a conqueror in the eyes of the people who lived here,” (pp. 122-123), unlike his father. He’s not interested in his father’s plan for the new future of the City, and so, Arik decides to send Erzi back to the Dao homelands. As his father returns to his desk, resuming a review of state documents, an enraged Erzi picks up a sword, and, unwittingly following a tradition of patricide, slays his father, becoming the General of All Blades. Mura enters the stateroom, sees what’s happened, and seizes the moment. Although it’s clear that Erzi is now overwhelmed with guilt and fear, she imparts the same secret that Rat shared with Kai: in the library of the monastery is an underground room containing a single book which the monks of the Stone Heart know holds “the secret of the Northern people’s great power and the monks know how to read it.” (p. 137) The secret book is powerful, not just for the formula, but for its political power as a bargaining chip, a weapon by which to keep Erzi’s Dao opponents in line, especially Andren. Lurking in the palace library, Mura has overheard Kai’s suggesting to Andren, the possibility of the secret power known to the Northern people and confides to Erzi her knowledge of the book hidden in the monastery. Erzi decides that he will arrest Andren, and use Kai as a hostage. So ends the first half of the book.
As a teacher-librarian, I have seen the occasional fight in the library, but the battle which erupts when Mura and two guards come to claim Kai is epic! After the fray, Kai, Rat, and Andren escape to the monastery where the latter recovers from a nasty sword wound and Kai fills Rat in on his family’s history. Life at the monastery is quiet until Erzi and company arrive and Mura heads for the underground room to claim the secret book, “The Manual of Divided Earth”. But Syona refuses to translate the book for Erzi, and when she refuses, Erzi orders that the monastery and all its books be burned. Joah, a former warrior who vowed never to touch a sword again, rushes Mura but is brought to his knees at swordpoint. Syona values two things, her colleagues and the monastery. Erzi’s ultimatum is “translate the book for me, and I’ll let you keep one.” (p. 208) A compassionate woman, Syona saves her people and is led away as a captive while flames engulf the Stone Heart. As the story ends, Rat and Kai stay in the City, planning to steal back “The Manual of Divided Earth”, Andren and Joah leave to meet with the Yisun army who are close to the city, and, in the final pages, Erzi and Mura gloat at having achieved their prize.
The Stone Heart is aimed at a middle school audience, but I think that it would appeal to older readers, of both genders. The art work is amazing, with subtle graphic nuances conveying emotion, and uncaptioned panels which speak for themselves. The fight scenes and sword play bristle with energy, offering plenty for male readers. The main characters are all strongly drawn, and the women are as strong as the men. A bit androgynous in appearance, Rat is full of energy and strength; she can scramble up a wall and scamper across tile rooftops with the same grace and ease as she dances with her friend, the street performer, Hannya. As for Mura, she may have been a starving skral, but now, she’s a warrior princess, without the title; she is tough and completely ruthless. Both Arik and Andren admit that their wives had sharper political instincts than they do. Erzi seems to have lost the compassion that caused him to stop his father’s triumphal procession to save Mura, and Kaidu is too sensitive to be a warrior. Hanging with Rat’s friends, he shows that he’s actually a talented musician, and his days at the Dao version of “boot camp” are hilarious, both for his ineptitude as a fighter and his total disinterest in all things military. Despite its being set in Medieval Asia, the dialogue is contemporary and fresh, and the banter of the palace guards is amusingly current.
I’m not a reader of graphic novels, but I certainly enjoyed The Stone Heart, although after my first reading of it, I had to go back and read the first book of the trilogy, The Nameless City, to get a sense of the back story to the conflict and to understand how the Kai and Rat’s friendship developed. Make no mistake, by the way, it’s a friendship – this isn’t a junior “Romeo and Juliet” story. It’s a tale that shows the power of genuine caring for one’s friends, a power as strong as the secret force which threatens to destroy the Nameless City and the tribes who battle for its control. Hicks is at work on the concluding volume of “The Nameless City” trilogy, and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to Kai, Rat, Erzi, and Mura. An excellent addition to middle and high school libraries.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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