Hardcover, 432 pages
Published November 4th 2014 by Little, Brown
Ryan Graudin is an American author. The Walled City is her debut novel.
What intrigued me most about the premise of this novel is the fact that it is set in a non-North American setting (though we are never told where exactly we are but the names make me assume it is an Asian country) and the characters are all POC.
The Walled City is about three adolescents who live in this walled city for various reasons: Dai because he has to infiltrate this gang; Mei Yee, because she was sold by her father to a brothel owned by the gang leader; and Jin Ling who is in search for her sister Mei Yee. Their lives collide when Dai makes a dead with Jin to stay as collateral in the gang’s headquarters while Jin makes drug runs to the city outside the walled city. Then Dai ropes Mei Yee in to work as his spy in the brothel which also functions as the gang headquarters). Dai doesn’t know that Mei Yee is the sister Jin is looking for just as he doesn’t realize that Jin is a girl. Jin knows what happens to girls in the walled city so she has hidden femininity along with any hopes she nurtures about getting out of the filth and crime that sweeps the streets of the walled city.
The novel doesn’t hesitate to show the grittier and grimier parts of the walled city, and does not at any time romanticize life there. Graudin does show that beauty can exist among the poverty and hopelessness though in the scenes when Dai sits on rooftops staring out at the sun setting. But juxtaposed with these scenes are the fights that end with death and gore; the softness of a child seeking comfort from a mangy pet with the brother scenes where bodies are sold but souls are demanded in return for little kindnesses. Particularly poignant is a scene at the end where the author reflects the inability of some people to move beyond the life they know even when they are offered an alternative.
The romance is…interesting. I wasn’t too enamoured with, to be honest but I didn’t really mind it either. It did surprise me that Dai falls for the girl I didn’t think he would and that was refreshing.
I also liked how the girls are distinguished. I appreciated the extra time spent in creating believable characters even though they had minor roles. Sing, in particular, was a powerful character though she was barely present in the story.
Now for the technical details:
The novel is fast paced and written sensitively without, in my opinion, appropriating anyone’s culture. On the other hand, the writing itself may present an obstacle to some readers. I have friends who were completely turned off by the flowery style of the novel is written in. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the style purple prose but I do think that for greatest impact, the writing could have been toned down quite a bit. I felt that it was difficult for me to properly enjoy the prose because it was littered with some many metaphors and similes. Not to the Shatter Me level but close enough.
The world-building is also somewhat lacking. Let me rephrase: the walled city is incredibly detailed and visualized but the world outside is vague and I didn’t know where in the world I was. Was the story set in an alternate world, at a previous time or the present time. The author’s note at the back speaks of reading about a walled city in Hong Kong which inspired her to write the novel. I would have liked some attention spent on the world outside just so I could anchor myself.
Concluding thoughts: I liked this book but I can totally see how some readers will not like it.