His Dream of the Skyland is the first volume in The Walled City Trilogy, and I’m already desperate to read the books due to follow it.
It’s set in poverty-stricken Hong Kong, probably somewhere between World War I and II. The story starts off gently, with a boy (Song Lu) trying to speed up his path into adulthood by visiting a girl he knows in a neighbourhood brothel, before she starts her regular day’s work. We get an immediate insight into Song’s character, as he fights to reject the prostitute’s business-like advances in the hope that he can find a more authentic, slower-paced experience. That he’s looking in the wrong place seems to pass him by.
The scene is luxuriously illustrated and, while obviously adult in nature, is far from gratuitous. It sets the tone for a sophisticated, emotional story, that peels back the complex onion-skin layers of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. As he enters the harsh reality of a life of work, he still clings on to the naive belief that there’s kindness and magic in the world, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The Hong Kong he lives in is a dichotomy, with the rich British imperialist rulers turning a blind eye to the abject poverty of their Chinese citizens. A free market of sorts operates but it’s dominated by the red tape and corruption of the British Empire, intertwined with the dubious business interests of the local criminal warlord. Those not registered with the government live in the walled ghetto of Kowloon, an underclass of citizens ignored by everyone except the gangs that prey on their weaknesses.
Song gets a job with the post office and is set to work sorting through the undelivered mail in the dead letter office. However, he soon takes it upon himself to investigate the whereabouts of some of the addressees, and finds himself entering Kowloon, getting to know its inhabitants and finding himself wrapped up in their injustices.
The book is a stunning piece of work. The story beautifully combines the wonder and beauty of Song’s innocent outlook with the dark and brooding menace of a shadowy criminal underworld. Juxtapositions are thrown up and the intrinsic unfairness of society is explored, while the fragility of life is examined in shocking detail. There are so many layers to the story it’s impossible to describe them. Suffice to say it has depth, lots of drama, bucket-loads of charm, and comedy and tragedy in equal measure. His Dream of the Skyland is a beautiful book that looks set to become a classic.