When I first chose this book from NetGalley, I was expecting a dystopian thriller. Instead, it has the feel of a thriller, but takes place in some vague contemporary time, and is based on an actual walled city in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Honestly, I wish I had googled that before I read the book, but it is a credit to the author that the images she evoked were at least as good as what I saw later online. I say this because the actual city is stunning – not in beauty, but in the sheer number of buildings stacked up against each other and cobbled together in what is called the densest place on earth. Take a minute now and google it yourself and then come back.
Can you believe it? It’s crazy! I stayed in a walled city in Tuscany, so that’s really what I thought of as I read this book, but it was nothing like the menacing, crime-filled streets of Hak Nam Walled City. The oddest thing is that the city beyond, where life seemed to go on as usual, was, in contrast, boring and ordinary; the walled city was a lord of the flies ghetto. The one disconnect for me was the fact that it wasn’t all criminals there – it was also filled with the unfortunate poor, and there were pleasant-seeming images of people eating in restaurants that just seemed out of place with these destitute, desperate characters. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that there was a hierarchy even here, and that the characters described as vagrants were the lowest of the very low who populated the walled city.
The story is told from three points of view, and, for the most part, I thought each character was well developed and compelling. I did think they possessed some generic traits, and there was a little rehashing of some old familiar plots, but the story was told well, and I thought it moved very quickly. There were a few scenes that slowed the action, but not enough to be a distraction.
I am not sure of the appropriate age recommendation on this. It is listed as YA, but there are a lot of topics that might be a little too edgy for the youngest teens, i.e. one of the three main characters lives and works in a brothel run by a drug lord. But the story is so much more than this, I would hate for that to be a deterrent. It is really just a classic tale of greed, hurt, sacrifice, and hope; and of course, in the end, redemption.