Overall rating: 4/5
Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction
Read if you loved: Romeo and Juliet! Or anything with star-crossed lovers/enemies to lovers
Content warnings: Self-inflicted gore, gang violence, insects crawling/burrowing into bodies
So, I need to address my bias before anything else. Growing up, I loved Romeo and Juliet. In fact, I had “These violent delights have violent ends” cut out from magazines and taped up on my bedroom wall for many years. I even quoted Romeo and Juliet during my University of Cambridge interview because apparently that’s what popped out of my mouth in the face of a sweat-inducing, high-stress situation (spoiler: I was not accepted). Needless to say, I knew I had to read Chloe Gong’s debut novel for all of the reasons listed above and more, and more than that, I was primed to love it. And wow did it feed my Shakespeare-loving soul.
Another quick note: I read most of this while unable to sit up from bed as I recovered from my second COVID shot, so any negative impressions may or may not be influenced by my groggy/sick/frustrated state of mind.
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
This is such a fun and fresh interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, holding true to the general essence of the classic but reinvigorating it, bringing in elements that were sorely lacking in Shakespeare’s iconic work. I adored the characters – both Roma and Juliette have so many more dimensions to them given the history that Gong creates between them prior to readers even beginning the tale. They are smarter, spunkier, and so much more badass that their original counterparts, infusing the book with banter and action galore. Their romance takes more of a backseat to their heroic endeavors which some may find refreshing, myself included, and the overarching plot of the novel is unique to Gong’s interpretation. The side characters – Kathleen, Rosalind, Marshall, and Benedikt also bring their own idiosyncrasies to the page, bringing to life characters that have typically been sidelined in discussions of the play. Their dynamics with the main characters were one of my favorite parts of the book, and create space for engaging dialogue and humorous scenes. And don’t worry, there are plenty of nods to the Bard himself, the reimagining of Sonnet 18 in particular put a huge smile on my face.
Another standout aspect of the novel is the politics. There is no lack of diversity – Gong creates an ethnically diverse setting reflective of the melting pot that was 1920s Shanghai, pulling in players such as the British, Dutch, French, Russians, and so many more as key stakeholders with an interest in the ongoings in the book. This widens the scope of the story to a level I had not anticipated, and I thought it was executed very well.
As much as I loved the characters and setting, the plot itself is where I sometimes struggled. It was very interesting but was slower to unfold that I hoped, with some scenes dragging on longer than needed. It felt like we already knew the big reveals and were simply watching the characters discover them, which can still work in some books, but it didn’t do it for me here. By the time I finished the book, I thought the big “aha” moments were a little anticlimactic, and since this is an interpretation of a well known story, I was hoping there would be more of a surprise element to the parts of the novel that were not in Romeo and Juliet.nSimilarly, there were moments in which characters made illogical decisions without thinking things through, and it happened so often that it just felt like a contrived way to introduce obstacles in the story. I just wanted more punch to it all.
If you like Romeo and Juliet or books with enemies to lovers tropes, you should give These Violent Delights a try! It is well-written, funny, and a very easy read. Based on the early reviews of Our Violent Ends, it seems as though Gong’s follow up is going to be even better, so you can bet I’ll be grabbing a copy on release day. Have you read These Violent Delights? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!