The Walled City


Author: Ryan Graudin

Publication: 2014, Little, Brown & Co.

Pages: 424

Overall Rating:

Rating for Action:

Quantity of Action:

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: The Walled City, or Hak Nam, was a real place in Hong Kong that was demolished after China took control of the island.  This fictionalized account of the last days of Hak Nam revolves around the intertwined lives of three teens.  Dai, who’s on a desperate mission to escape his past while trafficking drugs for the most notorious criminal in Hak Nam.  Jin, who disguises herself as a boy to escape the wrath of the street gangs while doing whatever it takes to find her sister.  And Mei Yee, who has spent the last two years trapped in a brothel.  She knows the horrific fate that awaits any girl who tries to escape the clutches of Longwai.  The three of them come together amid the crumbling, crime-ridden alleys of Hak Nam, where the slightest mistake can cost you your life.

Age of Main Character: 14 and 17

What I Liked the Most: There’s a lot to love about this book, but I’ll start with Hak Nam itself.  In Graudin’s hands, the city comes alive in all it’s filthy, decrepit glory.  You can almost feel the moldering walls crumbling around you, smell the trash and the tight, confined spaces where 33,000 people live in an area roughly the size of five football fields, the buildings and shanties stacked atop one another until they blot out the sun.  The dirt and grime are everywhere and turn Hak Nam into a rank, disgusting, and utterly intriguing character in its own right.

The stories of Dai, Jin, and Mei Yee are lovingly intertwined, with alternating chapters each from a different first person perspective.  It could have been confusing, but Graudin handles the constant transitions with ease, and each of the characters were distinct enough that even without looking at the chapter heading I would have known instinctively who I was reading about.  It kept the book thumping along and added an extra layer of depth to an already rich story.

And then there’s the language.  Graudin is a master wordsmith, and I was constantly coming across passages like the following that made reading a pure pleasure:

Now that Dai has discovered my camp, I’ll have to move.  All my secrets, all my terror, spill into the cool air.  Misty and milky white.  Like my sister’s skin.

When my breath cloud vanishes, the boy is gone.  I stand in the yawn of the alley, fingers ever tight around my knife.  Alone again.

What I Liked the Least: Like any good Chinese martial arts flick worth its salt, The Walled City is dripping with melodrama, especially the risk everything or die romance between Dai and Mei Yee – based on nothing more than a few words and a handful of glances through a barred window.  I’m a sucker for melodrama – and martial arts flicks – but there were times when their desperate attraction felt a little too gooey even for me.  Still, there are so many wonderful things about Graudin’s novel that even if you’re not a huge fan of melodrama and doomed romance it might be worth your time to suck it up and give this one a try – just be prepared to roll your eyes every now and again.

How Good was the Action? It’s decent, but not much more.  There are a couple of excellent chases through the claustrophobic alleys and rooftops of Hak Nam, and the fights have a lot of emotional punch.  But they don’t provide much in the way of action.  Jin’s knife fight with a gangster is a prime example.  You’ll feel the emotional impact of that battle long after the fight is over, and the wounds she bears are very real and have a serious impact on her throughout the rest of the story.  But as a fight, there wasn’t much to it.  It was all over in a paragraph or two and amounted to little more than an angry charge and a lot of flailing around.

How Engaging was the Story?  Melodrama aside, The Walled City is a beautifully crafted novel with rich characters, tension and fear galore, a tight time frame, and a setting so real you can almost smell the garbage and rot.  So yes, the story will most definitely pull you in, and once it does it won’t let go until the last page.

Profanity: Minimal

Sex: There are plenty of intimations of sex.  After all, Mei Yee is a prostitute.  But we see very little beyond a few kisses and a vague bit of groping.  And since Mei Yee has a single wealthy client, we don’t see her subjected to different men in every chapter.

Violence: Yes.  It’s not especially graphic, but there’s definitely violence and blood.  And while you might not see much in the way of gore, it’s hard to escape the emotional effects of violence – which have a major impact on all three characters.

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