Page 45 Review by Stephen
An all-ages epic which stole my heart and took my breath away. Prepare to be dazzled, enraged and ever so proud in equal measure.
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 the 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. Instead they watch silently, resentfully - and hungrily - as wave after wave of invaders steal their natural resources.
All of this is set out succinctly in the first five pages, Hicks and Bellaire establishing both an epic tone and landscape, emphasising what is at stake. Now they begin to make it personal...
Young Kaidu has travelled from the provinces to meet his father, General Andren, for the very first time. First, however, he must begin training in combat under Erzi, son of the General Of All Blades who conquered the city for the Dao three decades ago. Erzi is determined to ensure that the Dao don't go soft and sets the fifteen cadets up against his bodyguard Mura, a native from the city below.
They don't fare at all well but behind Erzi's back they disparage Mura sneeringly as "skral" (think "pleb", "scum" or any outsider you like to look down on and dehumanise). That Kaidu won't stand for such small-mindedness impresses Erzi (Mura, not so much - not much impresses Mura - I think you'll like her!) but don't be deceived: Erzi's in an odd place mentally and his affinity for the native inhabitants who have begun to call themselves The Named only stretches so far.
"When I was your age, if I went into the city, the children I met there would throw rocks at me. I was born here, but to them I was a Dao invader. When my father began bringing Dao children from the homelands to the city, they thought I was strange. They avoided me.
"The city is my home, and the Dao are my people. I belong to both, and because of that it's hard for either to truly accept me. "Maybe it will always be this way for me. But when I become the General Of All Blades after my father, it will be the first time the city is ruled by someone who was born here."
Hmm. By "here" he means within the safety of the fortress, not in the city below. I think he's missing the point somewhat, especially with Mura standing right behind him!
The cadets are forbidden from exploring the city on their own but Kaidu's Dad is far from the regimented soldier Erzi aspires to be and the first thing he does is take his son on a field trip to sample the street life and delicious cooked meats outside the walled confines above. They bond easily, swiftly, Kaidu's father emanating a kindly warmth which fails only on a girl Andren calls out to on a rooftop, offering her some of their food.
"I see her at the market sometimes. She always looks hungry."
Seen with fresh eyes, everyone around them looks hungry.
Kaidu's Dad offers to take him back to the city the next night but in the end trade negotiations keep him away. It is then that Mura steps in, perhaps seeing some hope in the boy after all:
"You should go on your own. You don't need your father to hold your hand."
"I thought we weren't supposed to go into the city alone."
"Everyone should go alone into the city once in their life. To see how it truly is."
What I hope I'm establishing is that no one here is a two-dimensional cipher with singular loyalties or intransigent dogma because that never ends well. Come to think of it that doesn't begin well, either, and the bit in the middle's a bore. Everyone can see that the situation is untenable - no one has held onto the city for long; you might as well invade Afghanistan - but no one agrees on the proposed solutions.
While that discussion evolves and generals are summoned for a meeting, Kaidu does sneak out of the fortress but quickly becomes lost and his reception is bordering on hostile. No one will speak to this Dao except rooftop-racing Rat, the girl from yesterday, and even she's not going to easy to win over.
What it really needs is someone to reach out: an act of friendship; an act of trust.
A leap of faith, as it were, right over the River of Lives!
And that is one arresting spread, isn't it?
From the creator of FRIENDS WITH BOYS and the colourist of INJECTION etc, I am convinced that this will prove massive for fans of AMULET, DELILAH DIRK, PORCELAIN, COURTNEY CRUMRIN and all those Doug TenNapel graphic novels constantly erupting from our shelves.
It's so well crafted with elements which later prove pivotal presaged well ahead in the game. I don't think I've turned the final forty pages of any book so fast - and then gone back for re-gawp, obv. Love what both Bellaire and Hicks did with the Festival of Ruins at night. It's not easy upping the exotic on a city already established as so spectacular, but when I first clapped eyes on the festival I thought immediately of Venice.
I like all the design elements which are convincingly coherent and must have taken some time to coalesce. There are early explorations of Rat's possible garb in the back and, although I enjoyed them all, some were less "indigenous" and a great deal more contemporary than others. What was settled on was perfect for a poverty-stricken child for whom jewellery of any sort would be out of the question.
Not only that, but if you stripped out all the speech bubbles and were compelled to read this "silently", you'd still understand the import of every sequence and enjoy the actors' priceless expressions in doing do.
Round of applause for the most unexpected yet very well judged piece of slapstick on page 112.