Book Review: The Walled City, Ryan Graudin (2014)

November 26th, 2014 11:55 am by Kelly Garbato

“We’re stronger than they think.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

Mei Yee was just fifteen years old when her abusive, alcoholic father sold her to the Reapers for mere pocket change. In the dark of night, the Reapers came for her: they stole her from where she slept, tossed her into a van with a group of other trafficked girls, and crossed into the Hak Nam Walled City – a place of pain, disease, and death. Here she was purchased by the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon, the brutal gang that controls the 6.5 acres of the Walled City, and put to “work” in one of their many brothels. Unlike the twenty other girls who share her prison, Mei Yee is “lucky” – rather than servicing four or five men in one night, many of whom get off on hitting defenseless girls, Ambassador Osamu took a shining to the beautiful girl and purchased the right to rape her exclusively.

It’s been two years since Mei Yee last saw her sister, but Master Longwai’s words echo in her head: “There is no escape.” Certainly not for Sing, who was quickly caught after a botched attempt and injected with heroin as a lesson to the others.

Jin Ling has been looking for her older sister since the night she was taken. Pedaling as fast as she could, she followed the Reapers’ van – right into the lawless Walled City and the den of the Brotherhood. For two years, Jin has eked out a miserable existence in the Walled City: scouring the streets and brothels in search of Mei Yee; running drugs to gain access to brothels and other illicit venues; posing as a vagrant boy to escape Mei Yee’s fate.

Jin has three rules – “Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.” – which have served her well. But when a mysterious older boy asks her to help him run drugs for the infamous Longwai, Jin finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew about survival in the Walled City.

Sun Dai Shing is living in exile in the Walled City – for 730 days and counting. But the Security Branch of Seng Ngoi – “the City Beyond” – has offered him a shot at redemption. All he has to do is hand them Longwai’s ass on a platter. Find and retrieve Longwai’s ledger, and Dai’s past crimes will be forgiven. And he has exactly eighteen days left to do it.

This already-impossible feat is further complicated by his growing affection for his partners in crime and justice: Jin Ling, the scrappy little vagrant boy who Dai recruited to help him run drugs for Longwai; and the melancholic girl in the window, whose assistance could be instrumental in procuring the ledger. After two years of self-imposed solitude, can Dai learn to trust himself with the hearts and lives of others again?

The Walled City is an impossibly beautiful and poetic story about loss and hope; finding family where none existed before; the unexpected connections so many of us share, even if we don’t yet know it; and the strength even the smallest and most maligned of us can find in numbers. Told from three perspectives – that of Mei Yee; her younger sister, Jin Ling; and the girls’ soon-to-be friend, Sun Dai Shing – the story moves along at a fairly steady clip, punctuated by short, snappy chapters that impart a feeling of urgency even during those moments when nothing much happens. The Walled City is a rather gritty tale, though not nearly as gritty as it could be.

I was especially drawn to the cross-dressing element of the story; I always scratch my head at the paucity of women passing as men in dystopian settings – particularly those in which the sexual exploitation of women thrives in the absence of a progressive, organized government. In the case of the zombie apocalypse, my long, feminine locks would be the first thing to go!

While Jin’s crossdressing isn’t necessarily a primary focus of the narrative, Graudin does a wonderful job of exploring Jin’s self-identity as the “uglier,” stronger, and more protective sister, in contrast to Mei Yee’s otherworldly beauty and outward physical weakness (or at least for the manual labor required on a rice farm; by story’s end, Mei Yee finds inner reserves of strength that she didn’t believe she possessed). After a lifetime of being overlooked in favor of her more attractive sister, Jin’s ability to melt into the shadows is of great use in the Walled City. And when Dai finally learns Jin’s secret and is unable to “unsee her girlness,” the author makes a rather keen observation about the social construction of gender.

I also love love love that the entirety of the cast is POC. Diversify your shelves, y’all!

The titular Walled City looms large in the story and is a character unto itself. Previously a military fort, Hak Nam was overlooked when the surrounding city was purchased (and maintained) by foreigners. The Walled City slipped through the cracks, and quickly devolved into a ghetto, marked by poverty, underdevelopment, scarcity, and lawlessness. In this place of chaos, the Brotherhood is the ultimate authority – even the gangs of street kids are afraid to harm a member of the Brotherhood, and even on the eve of the city’s destruction. The Brotherhood is untouchable, and yet it is ultimately its slaves, working together, who are responsible for its downfall.

What’s especially interesting is that Graudin modeled Hak Nam on an actual city: Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City:

The Walled City was real.

A very real, unreal city.

I first learned about its existence when I went to hear a woman named Jackie Pullinger speak. She spent nearly twenty years living and working in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City. The place she described – a sunless, lawless shanty-town overrun by gangs – sounded like a setting straight out of a dystopian fantasy. […]

Both Hak Nam and Kowloon started their lives as military forts. Both grew so thick and fast that the sunlight could no longer reach the streets. Both housed powerful gangs and over 33,000 people in their cramped borders. Both were eventually torn down by the government and turned into a park.

In the Afterward, Graudin goes on to say that human trafficking, too, is alive and real. The experiences of Mei Yee and her compatriots – kidnapped, sold into slavery by a family member, trafficked across borders, physically and sexually assaulted by “clients,” hooked on drugs – are all too common. Hopefully The Walled City will inspire some readers to explore this issue in greater depth. The author recommends visiting the website of the International Justice Mission to learn more.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The story’s setting is modeled on a real place – Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City; accordingly, all the characters are Asian.

 

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