Those who have been following OKPotato through January may remember that I picked up Ryan Graudin’s The Walled City (2014) during Bout of Books earlier this month. I finally finished the book about a week after the challenge ended and found I had much more to say about it than a simple like-or-dislike review.
The book alternates between three narrative perspectives: Jin Ling, a street-smart girl disguising herself as a boy in order to look for her sister; Dai, a boy with too many secrets and on a mysterious mission; and Mei Yee, forced into prostitution in a brothel run by the most powerful man in the Walled City. All three interact with one another in different ways, but each shares the same desire: to be free of their pasts, their weaknesses, and the Walled City itself.
It’s pretty difficult to say much more about the story without giving too much away. There are drug lords, street gangs, class divisions, and a lot of fight scenes, but there are also compelling relationships (platonic, familial, and romantic), and culture-centric imagery that roots the story in its Chinese origins.
Some background before we get into the (literal) nitty-gritty details: The Walled City’s main stage is based on the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, which was a military fort that grew out of hand into a towering, ramshackle den of thieves, druggies, and much more ordinary people struggling to survive. It was torn down in the early 1990s and re-made into a park. You can watch a great documentary about the real Walled City here.
Pre-book thoughts: As soon as I saw the title, my mind immediately leapt to Kowloon Walled City, which I have been wanting to use as a story environment for quite some time. I was ecstatic someone had had the same idea of using the city as a character itself…however, I was also wary once I saw that the author was not Asian and would be handling an all-Asian cast and story. Chebk’s recent brush with a white author attempting a very Asian cast and story in Stormdancer had left her less than impressed (or amused). Still, the action-oriented opening and the overall premise intrigued me enough to give it a try. I also wanted to see how other authors handled alternating third-person limited narratives, which is what I’m doing with my own current writing project.
The book: The caution with which I approached the story initially really hindered my progress in the beginning. Graudin won me over with Jin Ling, the street urchin who ran from an abusive father to find the sister he sold into prostitution in exchange for drinking money. She is fearless and intelligent, outsmarting a hell of a lot of characters, even when grievously injured. Though I understood Dai’s necessity in the overall escape story, in the end I cared more about the two girls’ narratives and found myself wondering what kind of story it would be if they had only each other to rely on.
Mei Yee follows a more predictable trajectory as a girl trapped in a brothel. She has two options of escape: in the hands of her odious patron, Osamu, or with the strange boy who shows up at her window. The consequences for each are crippling. If she goes with Osamu, she enters a life of servitude; if she goes with the boy and is caught, the brothel’s owner, drug lord Longwai, will keep her hooked on heroin so she can never escape again. To make matters worse, the only thing she has to believe the boy at the window is her own dying hope.
Each character is strong and complex. I enjoyed the focus on the two girls’ very different lifestyles within the City (trapped but privileged, free but barely surviving) and how they learn to survive surrounded by very dangerous men (the equivalent of the cartel for Mei Yee and thugs on the street for Jin). The threat of danger and violence is always imminent in the narrative. The most horrifying scenes involve one of the brothel girls being forcibly injected with heroin to keep her subdued. Graudin isn’t afraid to force her readers to face this darkness, the same as characters unflinchingly make decisions between a rock and a hard place.
I had some problems with the overall story. There were predictable moments that were immediately counteracted with unexpected ones. My biggest let-down was (SPOILER ALERT) the nature of Dai and Mei Yee’s relationship. I most believed their interactions when they were laced with healthy doses of wonderment and mistrust. Their hope in one another to help put their plan into motion makes sense, but perhaps not to the romanticized degree that Graudin implements it. Additionally, after Mei Yee’s time in the brothel (somewhere near three or four years), I have a hard time believing her willingness to find safe harbor with Dai. Graudin touches on some PTSD in all three protagonists in the end, but the love-cures-all conclusion to Mei Yee’s narrative rings less true than Jin’s cautious growth and Dai’s shaky redemption.
Lastly, the one thing that bothered me consistently though was Graudin’s use. Of. Fragments. (Example: “” but imagine that on EVERY PAGE, EVERYWHERE.)
Post-book thoughts: Having had a little more time to think about the book, I am still impressed with the way action moves the plot and each character’s independent narratives, but some things I’ve been wondering:
- Would the author’s deliberately Asian-centric descriptions bother me less if she was an Asian author writing about her own culture? (Everything is described in terms of dragons and koi, Chinese firecrackers and jade). The prose reads beautifully and it fits the characters’ backgrounds. Am I picking this apart too much?
The dragon on the cover page was a big turn-off initially. Yes, the symbol plays a large part in the story as the symbol of the Longwai, the drug lord. But even looking at it now makes me uneasy…
- There are obvious tensions between Japanese characters and culture and Chinese characters and culture within the text but no overt explanations. In a real historical context, this makes sense, but the book takes two routes with the tension: 1) Osamu, a full Japanese character, who peruses Longwai’s brothel, abuses and treats Mei Yee as an object, and is ultimately a villain to be overcome, and 2) Dai, who is half-Japanese. This detail matters very little except for him to recognize Osamu and mention of his Japanese mother here and there.
- On a positive note: What I kept noting throughout the book was how impressed I was with Graudin’s fearless approach to the darkness of the city. The nature of a lot of the violence and issues covered was pretty heavy (that goddamn heroin scene). As a warning for potential readers, there is a violent rape scene in the brothel that is glossed over a bit more than the use of drugs and violence, but still pretty horrifying.
All in all, I give this book 4/5 potatoes:
Have you read The Walled City and would like to help me with my post-book thoughts? Please, for the love of god, comment and explain shit to me. Chebk will be back tomorrow to discuss the fantasy genre. See you, spuds.