The Walled City by Ryan Graudin reads like a folk story – a fairy tale inspired by a real lawless city outside of Hong Kong (Kowloon) that was torn down in the 1980s. Not an historical fiction so much as a retelling with the idea of Kowloon as a basis – names were changed and dates not really relevant (though the story leads up to actual eviction of residents and destruction of Kowloon). The story is well written and easy to follow though perhaps not as hard hitting or grim as it could have been (and maybe that’s not a bad thing).
Story: Jin and her sister were sold to the reapers – taken to the walled lawless city to be prostitutes or slaves. Jin escaped and lives on her wits, a vagrant hiding under urine soaked tarps trying to survive disguised as a boy as she tries to track down the brothel that holds her sister. Dai, meanwhile, is a mysterious character who somehow isn’t beholden to either the triad gangs or the vagrant gangs. He has a reason to be in the walled city – and a mission to complete with time running out. Jin, her sister Mei Yee, and Dai will find their fates irrevocably bound with the ending of the lawless walled city.
We are given three POVs: young Jin surviving in terrible street conditions, her sister Mei Yee in the brothel, and Dai – a boy from a privileged background outside the city who is now fighting for his life. All three are distinct and unique – survivalist Jin, timid Mei Yee, and strong willed Dai. Each provides a different side of the walled city and the plot machination that brings them together despite their disparate situations.
The story could have been very grim and hopeless but each of our protagonists are full of hope and purpose through their missions. The story, as a result, reads much more like a dystopian than an historical fiction. If the ending is a bit too pat and people don’t feel as in danger or dark a place as they should, perhaps that would be for a different book with actual historical tales from Kowloon rather than a story inspired by the lawless tiny city. I did like that it ended neatly.
Although Mei Yee is a prostitute, we don’t really feel or read about the horrors of the brothel. Although Jin is living on the dirty sunless streets and in constant danger of being beaten to death by the street gangs, we don’t feel the grittiness of her life. And although Dai is desperate, he seems more despondent than worried. Hence, this is more like a folk tale feel with a happy ending than a dark noir piece.
I enjoyed Walled City and feel it is suitable for the younger side of YA up to adult. Reviewed from an ARC.