The Walled City

The downside of receiving ARCs as a librarian is that when I find a book so good that I want to hand it to every teen I meet, I can't.  It's not published yet.  I am physically prevented from giving someone an awesome book.  For a librarian, that's a horrible form of torture.  After breathlessly devouring We Were Liars by E. Lockhart as snow fell past my window earlier this year, I didn't think I could make it to May, the official release date of the book.  I wanted to talk it up and I wanted to talk it up RIGHT THIS SECOND.  I did what I could, but I still wanted to be able to hand the book to someone and say, "Read this.  Now."  That's how I feel about one of this fall's releases: The Walled City by Ryan Graudin.  We Were Liars, but I am so impressed by the solidity of the narrative and Graudin's refusal to rely on the now-standard YA tropes of dystopia, special-snowflake syndrome, or the dreaded love triangle.

I read a horrid blurb of this that described it as Divergent meets Memoirs of a Geisha.  This book is absolutely nothing like Divergent and has pretty much nothing to do with Memoirs of a Geisha either, considering that Graudin's inspiration was Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, and Memoirs of a Geisha is set in Japan.  I really hate it when blurbers think that Asia is a homogeneously populated country, rather than a very large continent bursting with very different cultures.

In fact, Graudin's book is so good that no one needs to compare it to anything.  After a bombardment of dystopias, sci-fi romances, fantasy sci-fi romances, angels, witches, vampires, more witches,
and altered humans books (this encompasses but is not limited to androids, cyborgs, GMH (genetically modified humans) and zombies) ... it is such a relief to read a book with a story that is real and terrifying because it probably happened many times in Kowloon, and it is still happening all over the world.

The Walled City is not a fantasy.  The titular Walled City has nothing to do with a post-apocalyptic Earth or aliens or anything like that.  It's an old fort to which the neighboring thriving city sent its poor, its undesirables, and its criminals.  The buildings crawl helter-skelter toward the sky, letting little sunlight reach the actual ground inside the city.  There are alleyways too small to fit a human being, but large enough to act as a freeway for the massive rats that lurk in the city.  The greatest and most dangerous rats are the members of the crime syndicate that controls the Walled City, lead by Longwai.  Longwai has his hands in everything that is rotten, disgusting, and inhuman, including sex trafficking.  He runs a brothel that sells the bodies of girls who themselves have been sold by their families in exchange for a few coins.

A few years ago, Jin's alcoholic father sold her lovely older sister, Min Yee, into prostitution within the Walled City.  Jin Ling, always the more energetic and daring of the two sisters, hacks off her hair, dresses as a boy, and acts as a message runner in the Walled City while trying to find and rescue her sister.  Along the way, she acquires a cat named Chma (because he sneezes a lot and makes a "Chma!" noise when sneezing), a tarp under which to sleep, and, most recently, a set of nice boots from the leader of a local teen gang.  This puts Jin in grave danger.

Meanwhile, Dai, a rich boy from the outer city, counts down the days until his exile in the Walled City is over.  In order to execute his escape, he must gather information on the aforementioned Longwai to pass to a government agent.  To do this, he needs to insinuate himself into Longwai's organization, so he offers to act as hostage while a runner delivers messages and drugs for Longwai.  The best runner in the city is, of course, Jin Ling, who has no idea that her sister is in the very same building where she goes with Dai to receive her first assignment.

Jin doesn't trust anyone, Dai hates most everyone, but they have to work together (however uneasily) for both of them to get what they want.  Min Yee provides her services exclusively to a government official who is obsessed with her.  He wants to take her away from the brother and ensconce her in another cage--a prettier one in the city, but a cage nonetheless.  However, one day, while Dai reconnoiters, he meets Min Yee and recruits her as a spy within the brothel.  For Min Yee, this is the first boy she's met who hasn't treated her with contempt or solely as a sex object.  Does she take up the official on his offer, or does she trust this young boy who's stolen her heart and promised to free her?

This is a breathtakingly relentless novel of double-crosses, young love (which I didn't hate!), survival, and class differences, rendered even more poignant by the knowledge that people are still sold as sex slaves, that people are still jammed in slums where filth is normal and death inescapable.  It's a sobering narrative, but not once does Graudin turn it into something maudlin or politicized.  It is what it is.

Much like We Were Liars, I can't fully articulate or pinpoint what it is that made this so good.  Perhaps it's the matter-of-factness of the whole thing.  Perhaps it's that it is grounded in fact.  The characters of Jin, Dai, and Min Yee are all well-rounded and real.  I could envision these people and I understood their motivations.

I only noticed one tiny misstep, and it was about language.  I can't give the exact quote because it would be a huge spoiler, but one of the narrators compares a name and a word and says that they sound the same.  They sound the same in English, but not in Cantonese.

Minus that tiny, tiny thing, this is an exceedingly well-written book that would make an excellent companion to Patricia McCormick's Sold.

Two thumbs way, way up!

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.


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