Seeing conscription through the lens of a world at war with monsters.
In the increasingly bleak world we live in, the most terrifying thing is that a dystopia is far closer to reality than it is fiction. Yet somehow, the YA dystopia novel has become one of the most popular genres to emerge in recent years, with some of the most well-known series including The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Adding on to this canon of work is Teo Xue Shen’s 18 Walls, a novel that marked him as the youngest author ever longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize (at the age of 19 in 2017). The story behind 18 Walls is epic enough, with Xue Shen having written the novel on his phone during his national service, which in itself also inspired the work.
18 Walls takes place in a fictitious Singapore of the future, where the island city has now been surrounded by the titular 18 walls to keep a race of half-animal half-human beasts out. To combat these creatures, the city has employed a conscript army of teenagers to fight them off and continue keeping the city safe. With 18 Walls then, we follow a group of these soldiers into battle, watching as their friendships rise and fall with each new revelation about the war.
Xue Shen knows how to establish a seemingly hopeless mood throughout the novel, punctuating these with some punchy, quickfire action sequences not unlike a video game. There is the constant sense of fear knowing that nothing is as it seems, and the team could be called for a mission at any point. This uncertainty and pressure is one that 18 Walls embraces, and a mood that easily translates from page to reader. There is plenty of potential to continue expanding upon the world of 18 Walls, with room for sequels or side stories that explore other characters and locales introduced in the novel.
Where 18 Walls falters somewhat is in firmly establishing its world, often speeding from one moment to another without giving us strong enough character development in its main cast. With an ’emotionless’ narrator, there are times the dialogue comes across as a little flat, along with a romantic subplot that feels shoehorned in. It sometimes feels as if Xue Shen is packing the otherwise easy-to-read novel with too many ideas, each one not given enough time to fully develop before moving swiftly on to the next. Multiple side characters are introduced quickly and often fade just as fast. Nonetheless, these are teething issues to be expected of a young author, and can be improved on with more time and experience.
As a whole, 18 Walls is a promising debut novel from a young author with plenty of imagination. Countless stories have been written about the Singapore Army, but until this, none have ever imagined it quite like this. While I’m personally not invested in the war genre, the unlikely combination of genetic modification, propaganda-touting government and cheeky nods to military training makes this work stand out from the crowd, with enough surprises along the way to keep us reading till the end.
Recommended for: Readers with an active imagination, and those who love war stories with a sci-fi twist.