Monday, November 10, 2014

The City in the City

Okay, NaNo is going very poorly and I may have dropped out.  At least I'm way behind, but we'll see what happens.  In the meantime, let's get a blog post in so I'm not just doing nothing shall we?

The Walled City is a new novel by Ryan Graudin that I got from Netgalley for review.  It sounded fairly interesting to me, and then other people put it on their lists of things that looked interesting, so I read it, and I really loved it, and it was so good.  There are so many ways this book could have been put-downable and forgettable, but instead it kept me turning pages.

There are three viewpoint characters in this book--I know, very hard to pull off.  Mei Yee was sold by her parents and brought to a brothel--I know, so easy to do wrong.  She was brought to the walled city--a lawless island within the greater, well-run city--and kept imprisoned there.  Jin Ling, her sister, disguised herself as a boy and left home to search for her; she's been living on the streets in the Walled City fighting to keep alive and searching every brothel to find her sister, until finally there's only one left--the headquarters of the Brotherhood, the gang that controls the city.

Dai, meanwhile, has been trapped within the city for nearly two years, and he has a deadline coming--two weeks to fulfill a promise and make it out.  He needs help--a fast runner like Jin.  Jin and Dai will use each other to get closer to the brotherhood, and all three lives hang in the balance.

The idea of the walled city--a densely packed, completely ungoverned urban block within the city, is based on Kowloon's Walled City, which really existed.  Essentially, when the true city's government changed hands, the area's status as a fort meant its jurisdiction didn't follow, and eventually it was run entirely by gangs. 

But the thing that kind of blew me away about this book was that I really through I was reading a fantasy novel, right up until the first glimpse outside, which doesn't come until about a quarter of the way through the book.  Street urchins, prostitutes, gangs--timeless, I guess is the word?  The first time a taxi showed up, I had to flip back through to try to establish why I was so surprised.

I consider this a great thing, to find a book with the feel of fantasy--infinite possibilities, characters who could be anything, a world to learn as I went along--with a very different structure around it.  Maybe it's just that the setting is so unfamiliar, in another part of the world.  Anyway, it was lovely, and that kept me reading. 

The different women in this book are fascinating, and each one--not just Jin and Mei Yee, but the other girls at the brothel, the madam, even the rich lady and the servant at the fancy house near the end--had their own characterization, motivations, and believable internal selves.  It's true of the male characters, too, from the government agent who doesn't actually care much about many people, to the individual urchins who are not just a faceless pack.  Thinking about it now, this was the coolest part of the book.  It extended to the narrators, too, in that each one had a completely distinct voice--Mei Yee's was dreamy and poetic, Jin Ling's fiercely practical, Dai's wistful and intelligent and so sad.

I want to go on about the things I liked--how the coincidences fit together without being off-putting, how Mei Yee really develops as a character despite being so confined throughout the story, how Jin really grows up during the story--but really, it's not so much that these things were Huge Moments Of Awesomeness so much as the book was just a compelling, enjoyable, smart story that kept me reading. 

If I have a complaint, it's that things wrap up a little too pat, but I'm a sucker for that kind of neat and tidy ending, and while I can intellectually appreciate a complicated, messy, not-perfect conclusion, I would rather my heroes walk smiling into the sunset. 

All thumbs up for this one.

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