The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: 730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

Thoughts: I’d heard so many good things about The Walled City, and the concept certainly intrigued me. A city cut off from the things and people outside it, a lawlessness that had its own rules, people caught up in schemes far bigger than they could imagine, all intersecting to bring their stories together. It seemed like a great starting point for an epic story.

So what went wrong?

I suspect in many ways the disconnect I felt for this book is purely a personal thing, because most other reviews I read for it don’t mention the particular aspects that were problems for me. Everyone’s got their individual tastes, and that’s fine. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone out there who will have the same problems, I feel that they’re worth discussing.

The Walled City of Hak Nam is based on Kowloon Walled City, an old fort in Hong Kong that was essentially left to its own devices and became a sort of city within a city, a place where the usual rules don’t apply, and where drugs, murder, prostitution, the whole nine yards were run often without any interference from outside forces, because Kowloon both was and wasn’t within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. It was a complicated situation, just as it is within The Walled City, with Hak Nam replacing Kowloon, and Seng Ngoi replacing Hong Kong.

You might think, then, that The Walled City is a small sample of a much larger world, the story that we get to see set in a secondary world that is most decidedly not the world we know and live in. But no, not really. Or if it is, it’s the same in every respect except for two place names being different. The world within The Walled City has 747 airplanes, Mercedes cars, television. Seng Ngoi and Hak Nam are in the eastern part of the world, and English is a language. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that The Walled City is set in this world, only, as I said, with 2 places having different names than we’re used to.

This comes across an awful lot like the author wanted to write a story set within Kowloon, but didn’t want to commit to writing something about a place that actually existed, and so instead set the story in a place that was identical for all intents and purposes, but with an easy out in case something ended up not being historically accurate to the places that inspired the book’s setting. A way to say, “Well, it’s not really Kowloon, not really Hong Kong, so there’s nothing to really be accurate about.”

Which left this world wide open for so much creative execution, so many ways to change a few things here and there and make it a wholly original world, even if it was heavily inspired by something real. Television could still happen in this world, but just leave out the mentions of brand names. The setting can be in the east, but change English to, I don’t know, some language that isn’t real and that you don’t have to deal with beyond giving it a name. Then suddenly Hak Nam and Seng Ngoi become real within their own world, a self-contained part of a much broader reality, instead of being fake places based on real places, set in the real world.

It would have been a small change but it would have made so much difference, at least to my reading of the book. It felt like unused potential, and it dogged the footsteps of the story throughout.

As for the story itself, rather than the setting, it was interesting enough. The book follows three primary characters: Dai, a rich boy who was exiled to Hak Nam and now seeks to find evidence against a drug lord to barter for his freedom; Jin, a girl who disguises herself as a boy for her safety and whose goal is to find her sister within one of the city’s brothels; and Mei Yee, Jin’s sister, working within one of the brothels owned by Hak Nam’s most powerful drug lord. Jin and Dai’s paths cross and they begin working together, mostly for Dai’s purposes but it also dovetails nicely into Jin’s plan to find and free her sister. Naturally, Dai ends up meeting Mei Yee along the way, conversing with her through her window since Mei Yee isn’t allowed outside, and the two develop a crush on each other as they learn more about each other’s lives and goals.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and their voices are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell them apart despite all chapters being written in the first person. Mei Yee has more poetic imagery in her observations, Dai is confident and cocky, and Jin’s sentences are often shorter and to the point, which ties back well to her life on the street filled with abbreviated experiences and frantic lifestyle. You can turn to any random page in the book and within a few sentences get a very clear idea of who is narrating, and credit where credit is due, that’s a tough thing to manage and I think the author pulled it off quite well.

The romance between Dai and Mei Yee was fairly predictable, and though it wasn’t given much time to really develop on the pages, it still was somewhat sweet. The two do fall for each other without knowing much about who the other really is and what they really want at first, and I think much of their attraction was based on who they each wanted the other to be, a sort of aspirational crush, as it were, but it was still rather cute to read their budding romance and to wonder how long it would last once they experienced the world beyond Hak Nam’s walls and their own immediate wants? Would it survive? Would they remain compatible with each other? Were they even as compatible as they assumed they were? Honestly, I can’t answer any of those questions, because the focus of the story wasn’t on their romance. But I will say that their interest was believable, realistic, and didn’t immediately go into the realm of obsessive attraction, and for that, I was thankful.

In the end, The Walled City wasn’t a bad story, and it had enough action and intrigue to convince me to read the whole thing through, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have easily been so much more. The world-building felt nonexistent at best and confused at worst, and as I previously mentioned, it felt like the author was afraid to commit to telling a story about people in the actual Kowloon Walled City. It ended up making a novel that was somewhere between historical fiction and speculative/secondary-world fiction, fitting in neither and so being very hard to categorize. This is one you read when you want something you don’t want to look deeply at, because then the cracks become obvious and you start to ask more questions that can’t be answered. Its lack of easy categorization makes it difficult to recommend: “people might enjoy this if they enjoy… books, I guess?”

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

One comment on “The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

  1. Pingback: January 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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