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.
*I received an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, a big thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for approving me*
Trigger warnings: blood, violence, gore, character deaths, explicit description of gouging self (not of their own volition), murder, weapon use, insects, alcohol consumption, parental abuse.
I love a good retelling as much as the next person and especially when it comes to retellings of Shakespeare’s plays there are certainly plenty available. When it comes to Romeo & Juliet, the adaptations which come to mind immediately are the films, whether it be the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film or the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation. In These Violent Delights however, Chloe Gong has not just written a retelling of the classic tale but she has revived it, she has charged it with commentary on colonialism, race and class and of course, given us the star crossed lovers in Juliette and Roma, tying together a debut which will be sure to captivate readers.
I loved the sense of atmosphere and setting which Gong creates throughout the novel, portraying Shanghai in the 1920’s with rich description and making the city and each unique place feel so palpable to a reader. Whilst reading I could feel the sense of debauchery and excess, of the blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers which is not so thinly hidden under the exchanges in the city and the rising tide of tension between all the different factions. I also liked how Gong explores the impact of western powers / foreign colonial influences on Shanghai and how discussions on race and class are approached and weaved into the story deftly and enriches it in so many ways.
As well as the conflicts which form the basis of the story, there is also a larger mystery and sinister plot at play, with whispers of a monster within the city and the madness, plague like that follows. I liked how there was this more fantasy / sci-fi like element alongside the more ‘realistic’ elements within the story, and how both work so well with each other. I found it really heightened the experience of the book for me, as I was thinking of theories and how it would all play out.
I obviously can’t write this review without mentioning the flawless depiction of the lovers to enemies / star-crossed lovers tropes within the book and how much pain Juliette and Roma’s complication-ship caused me. Yes, complication-ship. As one may expect with a Romeo and Juliet retelling, things are not easy for our main characters, but the situation is even more fraught and complicated when you’re part of rival gangs and even a hint of working together / being in a relationship could cause utter strife.
I liked how we were introduced to the couple years after a tragic event which tore them apart and we meet them in the present, when they’re at odds once more. The sense of yearning was so high, and their scenes were so tender and so full of wistfulness for what could be, if only the blood feud was over. I really liked the choice Gong makes here to reveal their past relationship in snippets and mentions here and there, rather than through heavy exposition. Normally I’d want to read it all firsthand but this slow reveal actually works so well and still conveyed to me the sense of history, affection and care that these two characters have between them, and also the doomed nature of their relationship, between the divided loyalties and impossible choices they are both forced to make. It was so compelling and speaks to the heart of what has enthralled readers for so long; two young people who love each other so much but seemingly can’t find a way to be together.
I also really liked that we got to read through multiple perspectives, and it wasn’t just reserved to Juliette and Roma, even though they are the main characters. We get a range of well written and fully realised secondary characters who I loved just as much and it never felt tedious or unnecessary when Gong diverts to their perspectives. I genuinely liked Marshall and Benedikt, Roma’s best friend and cousin and their teasing dynamic as well as sisters Kathleen and Rosalind, who are Juliette’s cousins and closest confidantes. I think sometimes secondary characters can feel inconsequential if a writer doesn’t pay as much attention to them, but I really appreciated how each of these characters had their own stories and journeys and definitely added a lot to the book.
Overall, These Violent Delights was a delight (pun absolutely intended) from start to finish and I can’t wait for the next instalment already! I’ve heard that it’s going to be a duology so I’m in eager anticipation. I would recommend this to any fans of Y/A, retellings and fantasy – basically I feel compelled to hand a copy of this book to everyone I know and/ or shout about it from the rooftops. I feel like it will be immensely popular on its release and deservedly so.
Until next time,
About the author:
Chloe Gong is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, double-majoring in English and International Relations. Born in Shanghai and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, she now lives at the top of a crumbling, ivory tower in Philadelphia (also known as student housing).
After devouring the entire YA section of her local library, she started writing her own novels at age 13 to keep herself entertained, and has been highly entertained ever since. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear by chanting “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” into a mirror three times. Her debut novel, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, is being published by Margaret K. McElderry/S&S in 2020 with a sequel to follow in 2021. She is represented by the wonderful Laura Crockett at TriadaUS Literary Agency.