The Nameless City is about a city located on a strategic trade route in what appears to be ancient China. Because of its location, it’s constantly getting conquered, with each new ruling group renaming the city, to the point that any explorer who asked what the city was called would get a different answer depending on who they were speaking to. Notably, the people who are actually descended from the city’s original inhabitants — who semi-ironically call themselves the Named — do not have a name for the city at all. They have also decided not to fight back against invading forces — so long as they’re allowed to live in peace, they find it’s easier to just let the invaders fight it out among themselves.
When I received The Divided Earth for review, I actually hadn’t yet read the first two books in the series, and so had to borrow them from the library. I’m really glad I did, partly because The Divided Earth takes off so immediately after the second book, The Stone Heart, that I would’ve been hopelessly lost if I had come in cold, but also because the three books together tell such a compelling arc that much of the impact would be lost if part of the story was missed. In particular, The Divided Earth is super action packed — it’s like the final movie in The Hobbit trilogy where it’s one battle scene after another — and without the context of the preceding books, I may not have cared as much about the battle.
The Divided Earth is a good, solid conclusion to the trilogy. Ezri, a Dao prince and now the General of all Blades, has unleashed the long-held secret power of napatha (a substance that can explode and burn through stone) on the invading armies and seeks to cement his power by pretending to have more napatha than he actually does. His second-in-command, Mura, a Named woman whom Ezri rescued from a life of poverty, has her own axe to grind against the city that she feels didn’t care for her, and her own plans for using napatha to wreak revenge. Our heroes — the Dao boy Kai and the Named girl Rat — are on a mission to steal back the formula for napatha. They strongly believe in Kai’s father’s dream of creating a council of nations to run the city and thereby end all the years of fighting. And Kai’s mother is readying to lead an army to storm the palace and depose Ezri.
As a stand-alone book, it’s a bit weak. Similar to how I felt about the final movie in The Hobbit trilogy, I felt the action sequences dragged on too long. And while I loved that the female characters Rat and Mura were given the epic battle scene in the story, Rat almost seemed like a superhero rather than a human girl with how much of a beating she was able to take from Mura and still come up swinging.
I found the strength of the book to be in its set-up. The first volume, The Nameless City, had a really strong commentary about colonialism — how each force that conquers this city has their own name for it, whereas the people who live in it (the “Named”) don’t really call it anything in particular; how the Named choose not to fight back just so long as they can live peaceful lives under whichever conqueror is in power at that time; and how Kai’s father’s solution (to set up a council of all the conquering forces to rule the city together) doesn’t take into account the Named at all.
I found the second volume had the strongest emotional wallop, with the way it delved into various parent-child relationships — especially Ezri and his father with a horrifying scene that made me gasp out loud. But also, it was emotional to see Kai confronting his father about not really being a father until a few months ago, and Rat confronting how much she misses her parents, but also how much the monks who raised her have now become family. There’s a lot of loss in the second volume that made it particularly powerful.
The Divided Earth didn’t have as much of an impact on me as the other two, but it does tie things together. It also gives us a great character in Kai’s mother, and brings back Rat’s friends to play a key role, which was nice. And finally, it gives us a nice glimpse into the future of the city, and the potential future for Rat and Kai. The artwork is wonderful, and the trilogy as a whole is really strong.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.