A walled city of crime, drugs, and prostitution in the middle of a prosperous enclave sounds like something out of a creative dystopian novel; however, it was the reality in Hong Kong until Kowloon Walled City was demolished between March 1993 and April 1994. New author Ryan Graudin blends reality and fiction in her second novel, The Walled City, to create an eerie, harsh world where emotional ties can cost you your life, and the best policy is to trust no one.
I earned a B.A. in International Studies with an East Asian concentration more years ago than I’d like to recall, so a YA novel with an Asian setting was reading catnip. As an added bonus, Graudin’s tight, well-constructed prose drew me into the story, and her nuanced characters avoided many of the pitfalls of typical YA protagonists. Characters Jin Ling, Dai, and Mei Yee all have strengths and weaknesses, and their reasons for being trapped in the titular Walled City ring true.
Young Jin Ling fled to the Walled City after her alcoholic, abusive rice farmer father sold her older sister, Mei Yee, to the Reapers, human traffickers. To avoid being kidnapped and sold to a brothel, the scrappy youngster cut off her hair and disguised herself as a boy as she scoured the city for any sign of Mei Yee. Two years into her search, a trick of fate brings Jin and Dai together in a risky drug-running operation for the local gangsters, the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon, which gives the girl access to the final brothel on her list. Dai has his own reasons for wanting entry to Longwai’s acclaimed pleasure house, and he will do almost anything to complete his task. Meanwhile, Mei Yee is the kept woman of an esteemed ambassador, Osamu, which has protected her from the worst of life as a prostitute. Fear of Longwai’s harsh punishments have kept her passive, but a chance encounter with a young man outside her window starts the beautiful girl down a path toward strength and freedom.
Jin Ling is easily my favorite character, because I admire her determination, intelligence, and unwillingness to ever give up. (Plus, she rescues a cat from street thugs. CUE THE FEELS!) She survives in the Walled City on her own and keeps her gender secret from everyone without any slip ups. I also understand her resolve in finding Mei Yee, because Jin Ling knows the fate facing her beloved sister. Dai works as a character, but I feel that he brought a lot of his difficulties onto himself through irresponsible behavior. He is an intensely flawed hero, and without giving more away, I can only say that he does redeem himself by the end of the story. For me Mei Yee is the weakest of the main cast, because her role is mostly to wait. Ultimately, she becomes the lynchpin, though, and while I can’t fully comprehend her personality, I know that Mei Yee’s survival throughout the story hinges on her ability to accept her reality and not show obvious rebellion.
The plot in The Walled City is intriguing, but the set up is a bit of a slow burn, which frustrated me initially. Some of Dai’s secrets also don’t pay out fully for me, but they play major roles in the entire story, so they’re not included just as background angst. Detailing the plot more fully would reveal too many twists and turns, so I’ll simply say that it’s worth piecing things together in the opening portion. It may seem slow and meandering, but the majority of the details serve a purpose; you just have to read the whole thing to see it.
The strongest part of Graudin’s writing for me was her attention to creating a vibrant setting. I could almost smell the dampness and trash of the twisted, crowded alleys and hear the sounds of merchants and food vendors hawking their wares. The Walled City clearly is a crime infested slum, but there is a certain beauty to it, as well. Like the main characters, the Walled City survives even when the surrounding Seng Ngoi considers it a blight on the landscape.
The Walled City is a YA novel, but due to the themes of drug abuse, human trafficking/prostitution, and overall crime, it may be too dark for younger readers. At its heart the story is an adventure tale about determination, familial love, and redemption (Yay, a YA story with a female protagonist that isn’t all about finding your true love!), which I think will speak to readers of all ages. If this tickles your fancy, pick up a copy and step into the Walled City with Jin Ling, but be prepared to run!
4.5 Shared Steamed Pork Buns out of 5
The Walled City by Ryan Graudin will be released on November 4, 2014, wherever books are sold.