Published: 17th November 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Trigger warnings: Descriptions of gore/injury detail
This was a buddy read with my friend Alexia. There was a bit of a wait before we could start, but boy was it worth it! I loved our detailed discussions and they made what was already a fabulous reading experience into an even better one.
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.
This book is like a finely iced cake with each individual layer constructed to perfection, where every helping is one enormous chef’s kiss. It is a unique and quite frankly outstanding piece of literature that enraptures and excites from the first page to the last with a vibrant, atmospheric setting; superbly developed, complex characters; and a plot that never at all ceases to be thrilling.
It is of course a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but one that is well and truly alight with imagination and originality. Of the familiar Shakespearean plot devices scattered throughout, all are woven into the narrative with intelligence and subtlety, while the stirring quality of the writing helps to ensure that this particular story lies very much in a class of its own.
The year is 1926 and the city of Shanghai is in political tumult, and right at the heart of it is a deadly blood feud between two rival groups who live far above the law, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers. Juliette Cai is the recently returned heir of the Scarlet Gang and is fighting intensely for supremacy, yet following every move is her White Flowers counterpart and former lover Roma Montagov, who once betrayed her with fatal consequences.
When sightings are reported of a monster in the Huangpu river and members of both gangs are soon overcome by a lethal affliction that causes them to tear out their own throats, Juliette and Roma are forced to work together in secret to investigate the source of what is being described as ‘the madness’. This leads to the reopening of old wounds and the sharing of some previously unspoken truths.
The epidemic overwhelms the city and the rapidly rising death toll threatens to leave Juliette and Roma with nothing left to rule, so they must put allegiances to one side and find out who or what is responsible. Along the way they discover links to the Communist party, who are in the midst of an uprising, but it is the elusive Larkspur who seems to be holding all the cards.
It is apparent right from the beginning that this will be a thoroughly immersive and all-consuming story, and it does not disappoint. The plot is relentless, bringing both high stakes and an air of mystery and intrigue, all played out amid an extremely tense atmosphere which acts as a constant backdrop to proceedings and never provides a single dull moment.
The characters bring so much to the table with their intensity and authenticity, leading the reader to feel a whole range of emotions as their angst-fuelled paths veer from triumphant to tragic. They exist in a brutal and unforgiving world, and in every interaction between Juliette and Roma the scars of a shared history seem to hang in the air.
I found each aspect of the book rich in detail and entirely captivating. It is eventful and unpredictable and has just about everything from science and politics to the ever-present promise of romance, and together with the mystery surrounding the innumerable deaths that occur across Shanghai, they all work in perfect harmony. It is not without twists and turns either, as although I correctly predicted the identity of the Larkspur, Chloe Gong shows she is also highly skilled in the art of misdirection.
There is always a lot happening and never is this more true than towards the end, where the action rises by an extra notch along with the amount of bloodshed. I had a few question marks about the villain’s motives, but apart from that the mystery is resolved very smartly indeed as there were certain things that I did not see coming, and these revelations left a real impact.
The whole book is written in the third person, shifting focus between each of the characters. It is not only about Juliette and Roma either, which is a very good thing as there are several other characters who are well developed, easy to connect with, and all have their own fascinating stories to tell.
Juliette is fierce and takes absolutely no prisoners, rarely hesitating to use force in order to get to the truth or extract a crucial piece of information. This sometimes leads her into making rash decisions and having to face the consequences of her actions, but I loved the way these flaws were explored, especially after she and Roma start to work alongside each other. All the same, she is compelling.
Roma takes a more measured approach and often has to keep Juliette in check. He is likeable and quite down-to-earth, yet at the same time very daring which makes for a good combination. His brother Benedikt and friend Marshall Seo are also a joy to read about, having personalities that compliment each other well, and sharing a unmistakable romantic tension.
The other members of the Cai household are also massively interesting characters. Juliette’s brother Tyler is the one you love to hate, reckless in his determination to usurp her as heir of the Scarlet Gang. Meanwhile, her cousins Rosalind and Kathleen are much more complex than they appear at first glance, with both protecting closely guarded secrets.
This is a book that contains numerous highlights, but arguably the biggest one of them all is the setting. The story simply would not be same without it. Shanghai in the 1920s is brought to life with the utmost clarity, vivid and with an atmosphere that seems to be buzzing with activity, as if an electric charge is running through it. Wonderfully diverse and multicultural, not to mention multilingual, it defines much of what takes place.
The city itself is frequently referenced in the writing, which is something close to immaculate and makes you marvel at the fact this is a debut novel by a 21-year-old author. It is expressive and full of meaning, with poetic turns of phrase and eloquent perspectives on powerful human emotions that give you pause for thought. One or two techniques are used a little repetitively, but that never feels intrusive.
Just when the action looks to be over, then comes the ending. It is dramatic and bittersweet and makes for an astonishing turn of events, culminating in a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel very invitingly to say the least. It is an ending that epitomises the book in many ways; non-stop thrills and hardly any idea as to what is going to happen next.
Overall, this book can only be truly described by using superlatives. The concept is ingenious and has the execution to match, delivering brilliance in every conceivable aspect. With uniqueness in abundance and a remarkable ability to keep you on tenterhooks right up to the last page and beyond, it is so much more than just a retelling.
Chloe Gong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, reading English and International Relations. She was raised in New Zealand, but has many relatives in Shanghai, where These Violent Delights is set. It is her debut novel.
Leaving all formality aside, I am totally in awe of Chloe Gong. It is hard to describe how inspiring it is to still be at university and write not only a bestselling book, but one as brilliant and multi-layered as this. She already seems to be held in such high esteem by the bookish community, and that is not in the least bit surprising. After this, she immediately joins my list of auto-buy authors.
Absolutely brilliant. I would actually go so far as to say that this now ranks among my all-time favourite books, and I cannot wait for the sequel.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐