ARC Review: The Walled City by Ryan Graudin


title:  The Walled City

author:  Ryan Graudin

pages: 432

format: Paperback 

isbn/asin: 978-0316405058

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 6/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Aladdin (I swear), Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, or The Murder Complex by Lindsey Cummings.  People looking for a non-Western setting, for once.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes, I think so. 
will i continue the series?:  N/A 

My Ratings Explained

730. That's how many days I've been trapped. 18. That's how many days I have left to find a way out.

DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible....

JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister....

MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She's about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window.....

In this innovative and adrenaline-fueled novel, they all come together in a desperate attempt to escape a lawless labyrinth before the clock runs out.

the basics
Despite many delightful elements and a clever premise, The Walled City contained too many moments of dullness and disbelief to enthrall me.  However, it didn't rankle me either, so it sits firmly in the realm of "Okay."  But first with the good: the idea of a walled city, a few acres square and overrun with gangs, was not only fascinating, but also based heavily on a real walled city in China.  History nerds, come to me!  I loved Graudin's portrayal of this seedy microcosm and its unique culture, at such stark contrast with the posh and pomp just outside its walls.  I also enjoyed the skeleton of the story, the interweaving of three perspectives into a cat-and-mouse narrative.  The story builds up tension well in the first half, but drags on just a bit too long.  Honestly, it's difficult to pinpoint what changed this from a 5 to a halfhearted 4.  I think if Dai had been more believable and the pacing tighter, I'd remember this more fondly.  That said, it's still a solid read, definitely unique.  

plot . 4/5
The plot with its three threads allowed for an interesting amount of crossover and dramatic irony, but could have been utilized to better effect.  It begins auspiciously enough with Jin, street kid, scraping for food and shelter with a mangy cat and a knife.  I loved her instantly.  Her scuffle with a gang of boys leads her to Dai, a mysterious boy with a dangerous favor--help him deliver for Longwai, unspoken leader of Hak Nam.  And, incidentally, owner of the brothel that imprisons Jin's sister, Mei Yee, sold into slavery by her father and lost.  The set-up is incredibly compelling and leads into a twisted game between Jin and Dai, Dai and Mei Yee, Mei Yee and her client, becoming more convoluted and dangerous until the careful house of cards shatters.  There are plenty of near misses to keep things interesting.  Except that it goes on a bit long and, at time, is painfully slow.  And the whole plot surrounding Dai, his mysterious relationship with a government official, his duty, is just so difficult to believe.  Especially for his age.  There are also some pretty magical escapes in the works.  In the end, however, Graudin ties the threads together with a satisfying, albeit Utopian, ending.  

concept . 5/5
Have you heard of Kowloon Walled City?  I hadn't, not until I read the Author's Note.  It began life as a fort about a 0.001 miles square (think on that), and transformed into a thronged, stilted Purgatory that bowed to powerful gangs and housed over 33,000 people.  Most of them bleakly impoverished.  The strangest part: this city existed as a law unto itself smack in the middle of Hong Kong.  For decades.  Graudin reimagines Kowloon into the fictional Hak Nam, keeping the spirit of the history but injecting it with her own rich culture and atmosphere.  The portrayal provides for one of the most interesting settings I've encountered, a scene for Aladdin-esque hi-jinks and also unspeakable depravity.  This city is the very place one might expect to find a house of girls sold into sex slavery.  Graudin's treatment of human trafficking is poignant and, in a time where it still happens with shocking regularity, very important.  She doesn't soften the horror for you, but neither does she sensationalize it.  

characters . 4/5
Jin's parts were easily my favorite.  She's a swashbuckling, spunky street rat with skinny wrists and a good heart.  Her voice is full of snark and spirit, and a bittersweet understanding of the world.  Her maturity isn't surprising, given that even before she ran away to Hak Nam to find her sister, even before she spent two years living homeless, she had spent many more years drawing her father's violence to herself, to spare her mother and sister.  She's a tough cookie--but not without whimsy.  Her relationship with her cat, Chma, was insanely adorable.  I also liked Mei Yee.  She's sweet, but also as sharp as broken glass.  Her slavery has hardened her but not stolen her compassion; she can be utterly ruthless, but allow herself to melt.  Dai . . . was okay.  I found him more cliched than the girls, especially given the rather unbelievable nature of his back story.  He's kind of your typical bad boy seeking redemption, with unbelievable skills.  He's not bad, just not as interesting.  Don't expect much from the side characters.  If they seem flat, it's because they are, but not in a bad way.  They're allegories as much as people: the evil Longwai, the squirrelly government agent, the kind and forgiving father.  They serve their purposes.  

style . 4/5
Graudin's style has a few kinks.  She doesn't go for poetic much.  She over explains a bit.  There are enough long descriptions that I just groaned after a while.  She doesn't differentiate the three voices as much as she could.  That said, I found her writing to be, if not exceptional, at least enjoyable.  It's often interesting and frequently funny, especially during Jin's scenes.  There are very raw moments that hit like a knife point.  Her dialogue is stilted sometimes, but not enough to severely pull me out of the story.  

mechanics . 4/5
Three narratives is a lot to handle.  Graudin does a pretty bang up job.  She uses the length of the chapters to her advantage, switching quickly when she needs to add tension or letting one voice linger when she wants to obscure the others.  It's a clever trick for maintaining tension, and for the most part it works.  Except, you know, I wasn't crazy about Dai.  That said, I thought she could have amped up the dramatic irony.  I can't help think of The Winner's Crime, which is split between two perspectives.  In that book, Rutkowski is pretty deliberate about drawing your attention to things that character 1 knows but character 2 doesn't, and you're waiting, cringing, for pages because you know that what character 2 doesn't know is going to be disastrous.  I wanted more of that.  

take home message
The Walled City draws upon some common character types and is slow at times, difficult to believe at others.  Despite this, it spins a truly compelling story of deception and sacrifice within a setting both unique and richly portrayed.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  


  1. I completely agree with everything you've said here C.J. This book was written beautifully, but the beautiful writing wasn't quite enough to cover up the slow pace and common character troupes inside. Nonetheless, like you said, it is definitely an awesome story of sacrifice, and the historical backdrop was amazingly researched. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous review! ♥

    ~Zoe @ Stories on Stage

    1. Thanks!!! I almost gave it a 3 for the plot, but there were so many things I did like, the serious subject matter and sisterly relationship especially. It's just one of those books that needed one more tweak.