The release of The Hunger Games triggered a renaissance for dystopian literature. In its wake came a wave of books like Divergent, the Maze Runner and many others.
And Teo Xue Shen’s 18 Walls.
Its premise is simple: humanity is fighting a group of half-human half animals called the “Savages” whose hobby is to bash people’s faces in. Ren, our hero, is a child soldier part of the global coalition to stop them.
With plenty of action and adventure, twists and turns, Teo’s debut novel is an impressive work.
But the fact stands that it’s a debut novel by a developing author, and Teo still has a way to go. (Read it anyway though. Preferably before you read the SPOILERS BELOW.)
I will readily admit that coming up with a story to last 270-odd pages is not something to scoff at, and Teo deserves praise for that.
The problem was that this plot needed 800 pages.
18 Walls, simply put, is a jam packed novel. Within a hundred pages we discover the antagonists are actually good, the protagonist’s parents were murdered by his own leader, and said leader actually made the “Savages” they fight against.
Most stories generally have only one of two major plot twists so their readers’ heads don’t blow up. Like the fact Professor Quirrell has Voldemort under his headdress. Or that Ginny Weasley was working with the heir of Slytherin i.e. Voldemort. Or that Scabbers was actually Peter Pettigrew. (Sorry, but J. K. Rowling really has the most epic plot twists.)
The point is, you can have ten plot twists in a novel, but you need breathing room between them and appropriate foreshadowing for the plot twist not to feel forced, and unfortunately 18 Walls fails on those counts.
The same problem existed in character development. While Teo’s main characters were decent, his supporting cast was too supporting—their character development either went at a snail’s pace or at light speed at the plot’s convenience. While I knew from the onset the fact April was useless at the start meant she would be useful at the end, her development felt like a quantum leap—too sudden, too large.
The second problem—thankfully, a problem mostly in experience—is the disparity between Teo’s writing ability in different scenes.
Hands down, 18 Walls main strength is its action. The battle scenes were smooth, easy to read and pulled off with finesse.
His weakness, then, was when he or his characters attempted to discuss serious or emotional issues.
I don’t think it was a problem with the interactions or his discussions to begin with—his writing is decent after all—but the situations themselves.
We see Rick has a troubled past because his mother is a drunk jerk. We see Sean ran away from his privileged family because he couldn’t bear his cruel older brother. We see Ren and the crew defect to the “good guys” because clearly their own government is nuts.
There isn’t a problem with those situations per se, but the problem is that past the first plot twist, the enemies are so clearly evil and the good guys so clearly righteous.
Maybe for a children’s book that would’ve passed, but for YA fiction there usually is more grey areas, because in real life people are less of good and bad, but more of bad and worse, and once you’re past children’s fiction you usually represent that a little more.
Instead, the book proceeds to a straightforward assassination of the Captain—the lord high poobah of the bad dudes.
Under a more experienced writer, I think that the elements of action and moral grey areas could have been more blended—the last few chapters of Mockingjay, the final instalment of The Hunger Games is an stellar example of that. (i.e. that epic moment where Katniss assassinates the new president because she realises they had basically traded one dictator for another and then the people actually get to vote for their own leader. Yay for democracy.)
In the end, there’s more I could say about 18 Walls, but as I said earlier, for a first novel, it’s pretty good. Are there areas for improvement? Certainly. The story needed more pages to let it breath a bit. Are there things that are good? Certainly. His command of action and army life (and since I’m serving in the same army he served in, I can confirm this) are good and entertaining.
Should you read it? I would say yes. Don’t expect the world of the book, but I say this: expect more from Teo in the future. Because if a nineteen year old with little time and energy (you can read more about his story here) could write a story like this, then I can’t wait for his next novel.