“In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens.” Even from the beginning of These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong creates a jewel of a book, adorned with facets of mystery, bloodshed, and intrigue. Among the razor-sharp prose, wit drips with each shared conversation, cutting in among the glorious descriptions of 1920s Shanghai. The Romeo and Juliet retelling is full of angst, romance, and a good chunk of fighting, making it a must-read for any YA urban fantasy or historical romance reader.
In the novel, Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai aren’t simply heirs to rival gangs. They are former lovers, with a relationship cut and spat on by one massive betrayal. Juliette, who recently came back from America, is a girl with a hard reputation and an even harder heart. Inside, however, she worries about who she really is underneath her roles and masks, questioning whether she is Chinese or American at heart. This uncertainty makes her especially endearing to me, as an Asian, and will surely make her relatable to Asian-American readers, who might face similar doubts. Simultaneously, Roma worries about protecting his close family and friends from the madness that has spread through Shanghai — a feeling that I vehemently relate to, because of the current pandemic — and facing a father with too many expectations. The side characters are every bit as memorable. While Rosalind is bold, witty, and dynamic, Kathleen is a pacifist in a world of violence, grappling with her sexual identity. Likewise, Benedikt Montagov and Marshall Seo, Roma’s companions, struggle with their own sexualities in a charade that is both humorous and compelling.
All of this turmoil is set against the mania of 1920s Shanghai, known as “a foreign city in its own country,” and more fabulously as a “party at the end of the world.” Amongst the struggles of the characters, there is also unrest in Shanghai. Chloe Gong masterfully creates a living, breathing entity in the setting, where there is strained tension among the British, French, Communists, and gangs. By interweaving historical political ambitions, gang agendas, and spine-tingling romance, she forms a Shakespearean-like story that I adore. The references to communism and colonialism are even more fascinating because of the world’s current scene, wholly giving me a gripping, thought-provoking tale.
Of course, another aspect I love is Gong’s writing style. She has a very descriptive, riveting style, which fans of Cassandra Clare and Jennifer Armentrout will love dearly. She describes Shanghai as “an emperor’s ugly daughter, its streets sprawling in such a manner that only the limbs of a snarling princess could manage,” rumbling “on Western idealism and Eastern labor, hateful of its split and unable to function without it, multiple facets fighting and grappling in an ever-constant quarrel,” and her imagery of the daily life in 1920s Shanghai is even more captivating. The first chapter reads, “There was always a whistle blowing in the background; there was always the constant chugging noise of trams dragging themselves along the worn tracks grooved into the streets; there was always the stench of resentment stinking up the neighborhoods and burrowing deep into the laundry that waved with the wind, like shop banners outside cramped apartment windows,” serving to cement the interest that she piques from the start of These Violent Delights.
Still, several traits of the novel make it stand out to me, even among the YA genre. The most obvious trait is the representation and diversity within it. These Violent Delights, taking place in China, has a myriad of Chinese characters. Juliette, Rosalind, and Kathleen are all empowering Chinese females that defy their male-oriented society, and the prominence and power of their gang makes the important statement that Asians are just as capable as other races, no matter their society. The amount of LGBTQ+ characters makes a similar, crucial statement, helping to empower the LGBT community. Gong also frequently mentions the beauty of Chinese and Asian culture in the novel, which I think is a beautiful characteristic, and one that many books fail to mention.
Another aspect that I love is the duality of the characters’ agendas, which is most present in Juliette and Roma. Though Juliette has an honorable goal, nothing, including morals, bind her from completing it. She will do whatever it takes —even if it includes killing — to provide a safer world for her gang, better known as the Scarlets. Although the grayness of her character isn’t new to YA, I thought it was refreshing, especially considering the time period that it was set in. Juliette flouts the standard set of rules without a care in the world, making her one of my favorite protagonists, while Roma does the same. In spite of his beliefs, he chooses his selfish love over ethics, showing a range of character that makes him all the more interesting. Both are halves of the same coin, with their goals merging fascinatingly into the realms of both good and evil.
In conclusion, These Violent Delights is an absolute must-read for fans of YA historical romance and urban fantasy. The Romeo and Juliette retelling is a masterpiece, pulling together shards of desperate love, enthralling political debauchery, and a relatable, exciting array of characters. Behind it all is the bustling city of Shanghai, which teems with mystery, subterfuge, and too many bloodied hands to count. The precise, almost poetic language used in the novel only heightens the qualities, serving to absorb the reader into the intricate plot. In the same way that the first page of the book reads, “In their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss, consume,” the reader, too, will be consumed.