The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

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The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Alex Mitchell
Reviewed by Alex Mitchell
Summary: A dark, thrilling, slightly dystopic tale filled with suspense and grit.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 424 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780622002

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In the walled city of Hak Nam, there are three rules; run fast, trust no one, and always carry your knife. In streets controlled by vicious and sadistic drug lords, three individuals all seek something. Dai seeks information on the criminal brotherhood which employs him, lest he be imprisoned. Jin Ling seeks her sister in the Walled City's brothels, evading the roaming street-gangs as she goes. Mei Yee, trapped in a brothel in the city and forced into sexual relations with the two-faced Ambassador Osamu, desperately seeks freedom. The three have just eighteen days to accomplish this, as the officials of Seng Ngoi plan to evict all residents of Hak Nam in preparation for its demolition…

The story is split into three interwoven first-person narratives. The first is Dai, a teenager caught between doing drug-runs for the notorious drug-lord Longwai, and seeking information on him lest he end up in prison. At the start, we are not given that much information on Dai's backstory or how he ended up in the walled city, but his character is gradually revealed, including dark secrets about his past. The second is Jin-Ling, a girl in her early teens masquerading as a boy, who desperately seeks her sister within Hak Nam's numerous brothels. Jin is quite well written, seeming to come across as convincingly strong, but at the same time very scared and vulnerable, as she still keeps a cat by the name of Chma (named after the sound he makes when he sneezes) as company. The third is Mei Yee, Jin's sister, who was sold into sexual slavery by her abusive, alcoholic father, and who desperately wishes for freedom from this life. Mei Yee is written as kind of your stereotypical damsel-in-distress, but manages to internalise most of these feelings lest something bad happen to her.

This is definitely a book for older teenagers as the book is extremely disturbing and filled with violence and, in some cases, strong language. Longwai's activities and punishments are the most horrifying aspects of the book. At the very beginning of the book, this is asserted when one of the girls in his brothel escapes and is recaptured. Rather than simply lashing her, Longwai gives her an injection of heroin, which turns her into a quivering shell of her former self, dependant almost entirely on the drug and going into fits when she does not get any. To most people, that would be a fate worse than death.

Perhaps one of the most terrifying things about this book is that it has some basis in reality. The book is actually based on the real-life Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. The small plot of land was an ungoverned slum-like region from the late 1940s up until its demolition in the early 1990s. From the 1950s until the 1970s, the city was controlled by triads, and murder, disease and prostitution were rife.

My only niggle with the book is the length. Granted, it is thrilling and entertaining, but it does take over 400 pages to chronicle a period of about two-and-a-half weeks. This may not necessarily be a bad thing for other readers, but for me it made it a little less suspenseful than it could have been.

But, this is still a gripping read and I wasn't inclined to put it down.

Further reading:

Escape from Genopolis by T E Berry-Hart – a similar 'walled city' idea, but set in the future as opposed to the present or recent past. We also have a review of Invictus by Ryan Graudin.

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