It’s easy to forget that “YA dystopian fiction” isn’t merely a paint-by-numbers genre, needing a futuristic, wholly invented world with a feisty heroine with special skills to take down the nasty government. Unfortunately this seems to be the case with many of the recent YA offerings, so you can imagine how refreshing it is to come across a book that actually has a new take on a dystopian world. The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin, has just that – and the best part? It’s based almost entirely on historical fact.
Three young teenagers, trapped in the Walled City, each lead very different lives – but all three are just as desperate to escape. Running from his past, Dai has only a few days left to change his fate, but he needs help. Jin hides from the rough street gangs by passing as a boy, searching every day for her sister. And Mei Yee dreams of leaving the brothel where she is kept, a dream that seems impossible until the day an unexpected face appears at her window.
Graudin’s Walled City is entirely based on the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, with a few simple name changes giving her a little more creative license than if this was straight historical fiction. However this is certainly not sci-fi, despite its dystopian leanings, and it’s interesting to see how difficult people have found it to separate the two genres. After all, a dystopia is simply a “society characterized by a focus on negatives such as mass poverty, public mistrust… squalor, suffering, or oppression, [which] that society has most often brought upon itself” (thank you, Wikipedia!). The Walled City is all of those things and more, and the research that has gone into recreating this world is obvious.
Graudin never shies away from the darker aspects of the world she is exploring, but also knows where to draw the line – rather than descend into gruesome detail, she leaves just enough to the imagination, though still I wouldn’t recommend this for very young readers. Occasionally the character voices do begin to blend together, but the very different experiences they each go through keep this from becoming confusing. Although The Walled City stumbles around the occasional cliché – how many more cases of instalove can the literary world take? – the plot is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing until the end.