Book: “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong
Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from a librarian friend.
Book Description: 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.
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.
Review: Confession time! I don’t really care for Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Even as a teen when I was even more emotional than I am now (shocker!), it never really connected with me. Well, that’s not totally true. I do enjoy Baz Lurhmann’s take on the story, but that’s because it’s SO DAMN OVER THE TOP.
But I am someone who is open minded to tinkering with the classics, so when I heard about “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong it caught my eye. If you take the “Romeo and Juliet” story, set it in 1920s Shanghai, involve two gangs, and have a Juliet who is nobody’s fool, you will almost certainly get my attention. And if you toss a monster into it as well? YA GOT ME.
“These Violent Delights” follows Juliette Cai and Roma Montogrov, two young adults who are heirs to their family gangs, but have a tumultuous and star crossed past. While it’s third person, we do get to alternate between their third person perspectives, seeing their sides of their ultimate falling out, and how hurt, and angry, they both are about it. I was more invested in Juliet’s perspectives, mostly because I felt that Gong really fleshed out her characterization in fascinating ways, not just making her be a love lorn and somewhat passive character. This Juliette is a calculating higher up of a violent gang, and uses her knowledge of Shanghai and her culture along with her Western education to make chess moves in the ongoing conflicts. Through her we also got to see the colonial and imperialist issues that were facing Shanghai at the time, with Western interests establishing themselves via merchants after a number of treaties after warfare. Gong addresses a number of the issues of Western influence and manipulation within this narrative, and having Juliette there to parse it out for the reader was a great device (I was so ignorant about a lot of this that I found that to be the most intriguing aspect of this story). It was also pretty cool to see not just Juliette but her cousins Rosalind and Kathleen using their wits and their own strengths as women to try to keep the Scarlet Gang in control, especially after things in the main storyline go to hell (more on that in a bit).
Roma, however, is part of a Russian family that relocated to Shanghai and that has tried to claim its own stake in the power pie. His conflicts were more family based, and seeing him (and his heavies Marshall and Benedikt, who were GREAT and WONDERFUL and I would totally read a book just about them) try to reconcile his love for Juliette and his loyalty to his family (some of which is forced upon him) wasn’t as interesting as Juliette’s journey. But all of that said, because of these conflicts that both have, some known, some unspoken, their romance is far easier to invest in than their inspirations in the original play. The two characters (as well as the side characters) harken back enough to be adaptations, but stand on their own and breathe new life into the story.
As for the main conflict, that being a monster that is infecting people in Shanghai with an illness that makes them commit suicide, it was a bit out of left field but I liked it enough. I enjoyed watching Roma and Juliette try to solve the mystery, and how the story still followed beats of the original play in subtle ways. This is where more Imperialist issues come into play, and while a less skilled author may have stumbled into some heavy handed moments, for the most part Gong pulls it off that keeps the story flowing and making good points. It did go on a little long for my taste, but a lot had to be covered for world building, as this is the first in a series. Which I will definitely be following, as the cliffhanger was searing with DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS PAIN.
“These Violent Delights” is a creative and fun historical fiction fantasy romance thriller (whew!) , and has me fully invested in a “Romeo and Juliet” story. Can’t wait to see where we go next.
Rating 7: A creative and unique retelling of a classic tragedy, “These Violent Delights” goes on a LITTLE long, but breathes some new life into “Romeo and Juliet”.