Title: The Walled City
Author: Ryan Graudin
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 4
Source: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on NetGalley (A copy of this book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review.)
Check out this book on Goodreads.
730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped.
18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.
DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible….
JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister….
MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She’s about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window…..
In this innovative and adrenaline-fueled novel, they all come together in a desperate attempt to escape a lawless labyrinth before the clock runs out. (Source: Goodreads)
3 teenagers living in the Walled City must find a way out of the city by New Years Eve. One is a criminal on the run, one has been sold into prostitution, and one is trying to save her sister. Together they must save themselves, each other, and everyone around them before the Walled City is destroyed. This take on historical events in 1980s Hong Kong is a thrilling, chilling, and amazing journey into the underbelly of society and acts as a reminder of the terrors that happen everyday not just in other countries, but in our own communities.
As soon as I saw the words The Walled City I knew this book was about Kowloon Walled City. Reading the description made me even more confident that it would be. Starting the book I was delighted to see that, yes, this book was a take on the world within Kowloon Walled City. The author says the book’s not a historical fiction, I’d kind of disagree. She captures the tone and realities of Kowloon in her novel even with the pan-Asian setting and 2010s time period. I found this book thrilling, interesting, and hard to put down. I do have some complaints about it, but they probably would be of concern to most readers.
The historical setting of this book is really interesting and I, for one, was super excited to see a book about it. Especially a book for teens who may not know a lot about this particular piece of history. I do think the book has been marketed poorly as a dystopian even though this is not a dystopian novel. This book is based in true events, even if the author has sort of fudged them around a bit – something I found unnecessary. I think the author might as well have just written this book as it was, set in Hong Kong instead of “Seng Ngoi” and set it in the 1980s instead of now. Moving it wasn’t really necessary, especially because it’s about reality, it’s written realistically and true to the tone of the Walled City that existed in Hong Kong. The moving around in time and place was just not needed in my opinion.
The characters were really well developed. The backstories were interesting and also based on realistic events that would produce the kind of teenagers who lived in the Walled City. Jin and Mei Yee are sisters who grew up on a rice farm, their father wanted a boy (makes sense, they’re farmers) and routinely beat them. He eventually sold Mei Yee to a brothel and Jin followed to save her. This is a really classic story of human trafficking and was excellent set and written. Dai is the son of a rich family who gets involved in the crug community and eventually is wanted for the murder of 3 people and so he runs to the Walled City where there is no police presence. Eventually he gets involved with the government in an attempt to win his freedom in exchange for evidence to convict a known drug lord and brothel owner. This is all pretty realistic, except maybe the government involvement, but it works well and is written really convincingly. I enjoyed these plot lines because they worked well within the Walled City of the book, but also the historical point of reference for the book.
I enjoyed the writing and found it really easy to get into. I honestly found this book hard to put down, and wound up reading the last 60% of the book in about an hour while waiting for some car repairs to be done. It was super absorbing while also making me think a lot about the realities of the drug trade, human trafficking, and the historical point of reference for the book. This is a super super plus for Graudin. Making readers think while engaging them like this is sometimes hard to do with this kind of content. I found the author’s note at the end of the book was probably good for people who didn’t know about the historical point of reference, which was apparently a lot of people. I found the world building otherwise fine because it is our world in current day “Asia” and thus it worked well.
My main complaint about this book is the “Asia” setting. As I’ve said I found moving the location and time really unnecessary. I think that this movement only proved to create a pan-Asian affect in the book which was really off putting for me. Grounding it in 1980 or 1990s Hong Kong would have been a lot more effective. It would have created a more grounded setting, a more grounded culture, and a more obvious reality, for me. I think the mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and what seems to be Vietnamese was really off putting because it created this pan-Asian effect which seems to make the book feel ungrounded. This made the book feels more dystopian because it didn’t have a real world setting that was believable to me, because it was this pan-Asian mish-mash and that didn’t work for me at all. The author’s note tries to clear this up by pointing to the WWII-era Japanese involvement in Hong Kong, but it really doesn’t fix the problem in the book.
Overall I really enjoyed this book. I think the tone of the book was excellent when the historical point of reference is in mind. It seems well researched, which creates a realistic world. The problems I had with the book probably won’t be problems for anyone else, but they bothered me enough for me to subtract a star for this book. I highly recommend this book and I’ll likely buy it myself.