4 star, YA

Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

Series: These Violent Delights #1

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.

I had the distinct pleasure of doing a buddy read with my friend Kaya @ A Fictional Bookworm. This was a great read for discussion, wild theories and maybe a teensy bit of fangirling over certain characters.

Lush, atmospheric and almost lyrical in its prose, it’s no wonder Chloe Gong’s debut deservedly topped the bestselling charts. Set in 1920s Shanghai, I felt like I was transported to this gorgeous locale as the city was on the brink of political upheaval and foreigner influence.

Amidst all of this is a blood feud between two major gangs ruling half of the city each: the Chinese Scarlet gang versus the Russian White Flowers. And at the heart of this feud lies the heirs of each, Roma and Juliette. I will admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Romeo and Juliet retelling but Chloe did this justice. This isn’t just some dumb family hating family story for no reason. I love how integrated this retelling trope was with the rest of the setting and plotline, never feeling forced in for the trope alone.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, and boy, did it make a difference. My Mandarin is almost nonexistent (I’m trying, Mom and Dad), let alone the Shanghainese dialect, so ensuring I have the proper pronunciations of all the pinyin was great.

There are plenty of things I can rave about this book, but I will keep it concise (or as concise as a longwinded explainer like me can go).

The characters make up some of the best reasons why I kept turning back to this book as soon as possible. Juliette is a complicated heroine, with plenty of blood on her hands and much she wants to prove as a daughter inheriting the gang. She needs to demand respect and be more ruthless than the next person, even if it means spreading rumors of more viciousness than she necessarily is. Meanwhile, Roma is the softhearted one of the two, struggling to keep his status in his gang when it (and his father) demands ruthlessness. I loved seeing the opposites here, but also the way they bring out the balance in one another. If anyone understands the kinds of pressure it is to always be on your A game, it’s the other.

We talked about how interesting it is that their relationship was technically lovers to enemies to hopefully lovers. That’s not as commonly seen in literature, and I did wish we got more details about the first time they fell in love when they were younger and more idealistic about the world. However, the steamy slowburn second time around was more than worth the lack of detail before as chaos in the city throws these two back together.

And here’s where I personally really loved this book. The world building does take its time in the first half, but it really sets the stage almost immediately with a mysterious outbreak that leads to self-inflicted harm. I was guessing half the time what was going on, who or what was causing this madness that swept the city, and if everyone we encountered so far could be taken at face value. I was magically transported to this beautiful city by the sea, embroiled in political upheaval as the Communist party takes root among the people while the gangsters grapple amongst themselves with the foreigners trying to stake a claim on land that didn’t belong to them.

Shanghai was messily, gloriously complicated and I was here for it EVERY second.

Not to finish this review without mentioning the secondary characters because for once, this book actually made them stand out as more than props for the protagonists. I love the sweet moments between Roma’s cousin Benedikt and their mutual best friend Marshall. I can see why people are falling head over heels for this ship even with so little screen (page?) time. And on Juliette’s side, her cousins Kathleen and Rosalind were intriguing characters with a hidden depth I feel we are only starting to see, perhaps as a foundation for what’s to come in the sequel.

All this to say is, if I could write a cool Asian-inspired fantasy that was both lyrical in prose and suspenseful in plot, I wish I could write something like this. But then again, I don’t need to because Chloe Gong has masterfully done this already. And with that ending dropped on us…well, I really can’t wait for the sequel now. My heart can only shatter so many times.

Overall Recommendation:

These Violent Delights transports us back in time to Shanghai on the brink of political change, where gangsters still control the city and a mysterious madness may just so happen to be unleashed upon them all. I love the way Chloe Gong portrayed Asian culture with such lush descriptions and poetic prose. I feel not only like I’m there, but that I am home with my ancestors, the country where my family came from. Balancing this unique world building with the romantic characterizations of this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, we follow two enemies as they are forced back together for the sake of their city and the people they love. With high romantic angst, amazing secondary characters and the mystery surrounding the madness encompassing Shanghai, this book is a MUST read for all. I swear, it’ll change your mind about historical fantasies in general.


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