Happy Saturday, Reading Nook readers!
Today, I'm reviewing The Walled City by Ryan Graudin!
I've loved Ryan's writing since All That Glows, where I thought she did a great job of intermixing British history, with the contemporary realities of London life.
So I've been excited to see just how she would handle fictionalizing the real-life legacy of the Walled City of Kowloon. Not surprisingly, Graudin writes a fast-paced tale that will keep readers on their toes.
Hardcover, 432 pages Published November 4th 2014 by Little, Brown
Format read: ARC via publisher
Readers will be kept on their toes by Graudin's writing and expert plotting, as Dai, Jin and Mei Yee join together in one last final bid to escape the city, once and for all.
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.
Fortunately for me, I was able to get an ARC in ALA. This is an exciting, creative book using a real-life place as a fictional foundation, and I'm thinking that readers will love this book.
Things that worked:
I'm always impressed any author who attempts to have more than one point-of-view, and Graudin narrates The Walled City through three protagonists.
Graudin does a nice job of balancing between Dai, Jin and Mai Yee's POVs, providing readers with enough details and background on each character to make them well-rounded, while also making sure that their paths are interwoven enough that the plot keeps moving forward.
While each of their backgrounds will likely impact a reader in different ways, Graudin does an exceptionally strong job with Dai. There's a redemptive arc to his actions that I think any readers will empathize with, and want to see to the very end.
The secondary characters are hauntingly memorable as well. Despite only having scant appearances, characters like Sing are hauntingly tragic, and a strong reminder of what our three protagonists are fighting to leave behind.
From the very first page, Graudin's tale moves incredibly quickly. This is partially due to the three points-of-view; by jumping between characters, Graudin is able to move forward with key interactions that keep the plot going.
However, the pace of the book is also largely attributed to Graudin's writing and tightly-knit central plot. By building in a countdown to the main framework of the story, readers can't help but feel a sense of urgency in every page they read, every event that they see unfolding, and every obstacle that delays our characters.
Graudin's writing basically made me catch my breath at several points, and I can easily see other readers feeling the same.
The deeper/darker issues
The real-life Walled City was a hotbed of prostitution and organized crime, and Graudin replicates this to great effect in her fictionalized version. She doesn't hold back in showing just how low people can go, when they can garner and grade favor in drugs and in human flesh.
The effect is chilling and difficult to read at times, but it's also a reminder of the realities of what the real-life counterparts of these fictionalized characters had to suffer. It's also a reminder of just what our three protagonists have at stake, in order to regain their freedom.
Of special note: Graudin makes it a point to include some stark scenes of forced prostitution and forced injection of heroine into unwilling victims. Educators and parents might consider introducing older, curious readers to the Opium Wars and other historically-accurate source material.
While the book doesn't necessarily spend too much time focusing on the relationships that develop between our three protagonists, Graudin does a good job of showing how these three young people come to find each other on the inside, and how there are many others like them that depend on relationships with strangers to survive.
The entire structure of the Walled City is essentially a metaphor for where everyone has been forced to grow up too fast and too soon, an idea that Graudin eventually returns to in the final chapter of the book.
Without giving any spoilers away, I did think the ending was well-suited for Dai/Jin/Mei's journey, while also acknowledging the fact that sometimes, there is no escaping the permanent psychological horrors that are wrought on someone by a place like the Walled City.
Some people may physically get out, but they're never going to emotionally leave a place. And that's the reality of the situation.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
My one major issue with The Walled City, was with Graudin's tendency to intermix Chinese/Korean//Vietnamese, names and terms, etc.
E.g. A character would have a Chinese name, but would have a Korean surname. Or one character would follow the Asian custom of putting the surname first, while another character would have the forename (or first name) first, and surname second. Similarly, names for things and places would often intermix a variety of Asian languages.
As someone of Asian descent and has studied in East Asian studies, I definitely found this intermixing of multiple cultures to be a little jarring. However, I also think it's fully possible that:
1) Graudin did this on purpose, to create her own world with East Asian elements, or
2) Graudin decided to intermix all of these cultures, as a way of showing just how mixed-up/entwined everything can become in such a dense, mixed-up world - much like the real Walled City itself.
Either way, I would have loved some clarity re: Graudin's writing choices re: names, but it's not enough of a deterrent to dissuade from the overall impact story.
Readers will undoubtedly relate to Dai, Jin and Mei Yee, as they find strength in their circumstances and begin to trust in each other. This is a tale about maintaining humanity in the face of dark circumstances as much as it's an adventure story, and Graudin does a great job of bringing both to life.
I highly recommend this book for Graudin fans, but also for readers who are looking to get a fictionalized and gritty version of a dark, intriguing world.
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