Genres: Action & Adventure, Love & Romance, Young Adult
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on November 4th 2014
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730. That's how many days I've been trapped.
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.
I was so excited when I dived into reading The Walled City, and when I started reading I thought it had true 5-star potential. I was practically giddy because I thought I had discovered a new favorite that I hoped could pull me out of my reading slump (which I haven’t really acknowledged until now, but between not reading because of school and a few lackluster books, I think it’s true). The setting, the writing, the action… it all instantly captured my attention.
Buuuuut… somewhere along the way I lost that excitement and focus. Admittedly, I started this book in January and only just finished it now because of schoolwork, but there were other factors that kept me from reading it in every spare moment. But before I go into them, I want to start with what I did like.
I really, really enjoyed the writing. I’ve never read anything by Ryan Graudin before, but I was impressed as soon as I started reading. Nothing about her writing feels forced, and instead felt really natural to me. Instead of dragging, wordy sentences, Graudin uses short but strong sentences that really made an impact on me and kept my attention. She perhaps uses a few too many similes, but for the most part I loved them — they really add depth to the description without being overly verbose, and often made a connection back to the book’s Asian influences. Her language is just beautiful.
“Without her, I had no reason to stay on the farm, taking my father’s blows. Watching my mother wither like our rice crops.”
“Sing’s cries are in my head, and the yes is on my tongue, filling my body with sparks and spit, like the firework our neighbors bought one New Year’s.”
“He’s staring out, out. The way he was that morning. At the skyscrapers, thick and tall as a bamboo forest. Their windows twinkling madly through the falling rain.”
The unique setting truly made the book special. The book is actually based off the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, though The Walled City is not historical fiction. I was sucked in by the setting, and Graudin’s description made the hopelessness, cruel poverty, and desperate life of the streets feel so real. The few times the setting strayed to the nice city surrounding Hak Nam (the Walled City’s real name in the novel), I was immediately jarred by the change and the striking contrast between the two cities — the world building was just that good.
Though the Asian influence wasn’t overwhelming, I appreciated the added diversity in the book. Realistically, and with minor changes, the novel could have been set in any large, metropolitan city across the globe (besides the fact that it was based off a real city in Asia). The book’s Asian setting didn’t influence any major part of the plot; the same poverty, crime, and lawlessness can be found anywhere.
But the small details — about the sisters’ old home in the rice paddies, the way the neighborhood noodle shops, etc. would prepare the ingredients in the morning, the traditional and “reversed” (in Western view) style of the characters’ names — were subtle and captivating peeks into another culture. The Asian influences hinted at in the synopsis was part of the reason I bought the book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
And I couldn’t finish up what I liked without mentioning Jin and Dai’s relationship. Though they start out as strangers and reluctant-to-trust allies, their relationship very believably deepened until they were something like siblings — watching over and protecting each other, and relieving and comforting the void in each others’ lives. Their sibling-like relationship made me feel all the feels, especially when View Spoiler »they finally confess their secrets to one another and Jin comments on how she always wished for a brother to protect her, so she didn’t always have to be the “strong one.” Plus the way Jin becomes Dai’s redemption and reminds him of Hiro just BREAKS MY HEART. « Hide Spoiler Let’s just say it was my favorite relationship in the book.
But the book’s biggest flaw that forced me to reconsider my opinion was its pacing. Considering the way The Walled City was marketed as an “adrenaline-fueled novel” featuring a “desperate attempt to escape a lawless labyrinth before the clock runs out,” I was frustrated by the way the plot seemed to lag for most of the book. While I did read it very slowly over a long period of time, it wasn’t just me.
Though it started out with a bang and the last third or forth of the book was non-stop action, the first half or so of the book seemed to drag for me. It wasn’t until exactly the 50% mark that a few big secrets were revealed, finally setting more parts of the plot into motion. Before this point, I was growing quite tired of information being handed out like breadcrumbs, and not being able to even guess what general direction the plot might be headed towards. I can imagine that many people might have DNF’ed before reaching halfway because of this.
The romance wasn’t without flaws, either; I had very mixed opinions about its place in the book. When Mei Yee and Dai first met and were obviously enchanted by each other, inwardly I was begging that their relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. I felt that such a relationship seemed unbelievable in the cruel world of the Walled City, and that their personalities didn’t really mesh.
But while I never was deeply invested in their romance, their relationship did prove to be a vital part of the book. It was perhaps because their relationship seemed so unbelievable that it was in fact so striking. Desperate people living day by day have no time for romance, but yet it reality it happens anyway. It was their disparate lives and souls that drew them together in twin fascination, and eventually changed each for the better. I found Mei Yee’s character arc especially brilliant in light of how I had little sympathy and liking for her in the beginning of the book.
Overall I did enjoy the book, though at parts I wasn’t engrossed and entirely absorbed while reading, like I am when reading books I love. I still can’t help but think I should’ve read it in less sittings as well.