Thank you to Simon Pulse for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
Book: These Violent Delights
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.
Author: Chloe Gong
Year Published: 2020
Content Warnings: Blood, violence, gore, character deaths, explicit description of gouging self (not of their own volition), murder, weapon use, insects, alcohol consumption, parental abuse (from author’s website)
- Plot: 5/5
- Characters: 5/5
- Writing: 5/5
- Overall: 5/5
BREAKING NEWS! Recently, sobs of anguish have been issuing from Shakespeare’s grave at random hours of the day. There is much speculation over the cause but I’ll let you in on a secret: Shakespeare’s ghost is weeping on the other side because finally, after all these years, he’s been outdone. Who by? Chloe Gong and her painfully beautiful debut, These Violent Delights.
Did my heart love till now? I think not. This book has become one of my favourite reads of all time because simply put, it is perfect in every way. It is a young adult historical novel with elements of science fiction/ fantasy that retells Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai with rival gangs, a monster and a mysterious contagion for extra spice.
I’ve read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and while I appreciate that it’s extremely well written, I very much dislike it because I just find the plot illogical (if you disagree don’t come at me these things are subjective). Luckily, These Violent Delights took everything I dislike about the original play and made it into something that I adore with all my heart- that in itself is a miracle as far as I’m concerned.
I did however enjoy being able to pick up on the many small Romeo and Juliet references scattered throughout. The author included tiny details that showed how much thought and care had gone into the retelling. A non-spoilery example would be how in the novel Juliette often says things that have double meanings to hide her true intentions which is exactly what Juliet does in Shakespeare’s play.
Even better than the references were the clever ways Gong tweaked the plot to keep the reader guessing whether they were familiar with Romeo and Juliet or not. Because it’s a retelling, I thought I knew exactly how the plot would go but it completely inverted my expectations and left me reeling in shock.
The prose was so beautiful that I was captivated from the first sentence. It was intense and lyrical, Gong skilfully crafted vibrant, authentic atmospheres with just a few words. I adored the third person omniscient narration because it gave the story a sense of scope and grandeur. We get glimpses into the minds of so many characters and I loved that each one had their own distinct voice. It was definitely the most beautiful and experimental writing I’ve seen in a debut and Gong really pulled it off!
Juliette Cai was the heiress to the Scarlet Gang who had spent the past four years in America and come back different in many ways- only to find out Shanghai had done the same. She was smart, brave and reckless with nerves of steel and deadpan humour– it was hard to not love her. Juliette Cai had so much more agency and power than Juliet Capulet and I loved to see it! She truly was a force to behold and I was cheering her on throughout. Her rage at the injustices of her world- the racism, misogyny, greed, xenophobia, lack of empathy- was palpable and it was so interesting seeing Shanghai through her eyes.
I think Juliette’s diaspora story is one that will resonate with many people. She found herself in a position where in America she was too Eastern to be accepted and when she returned to Shanghai, she was too Western to be accepted. That sense of not knowing who she was or where she truly belonged permeated her story arc.
Roma Montagov was the heir to the White Flowers. His inner conflict was so interesting because deep down inside he was soft, sensitive and dreamy hated being the heir to a gang. He wished he could just disappear with his loved ones and live a quiet life but at the same time, he was scared to relinquish the protection and privilege his position of power gave him. I loved his relationship with his younger sister, Alisa, it was so sweet.
The main storyline of the book wasn’t focused on Juliette and Roma’s relationship but that didn’t make it any less memorable. Gong turned the original play on its head so that when they met at the start of the novel it wasn’t their first encounter because they were already exes with a complicated history full of lies and betrayal.
I loved this twist for two reasons. Firstly, because it took out the ‘insta love’ aspect that I didn’t like in Romeo and Juliet. Secondly, because it made their relationship so much more intense and dynamic. They had to get to know each other all over again, these harder and colder versions of themselves. They had to grapple with conflicting feelings of love and hate that have been festering for so many years. They weren’t children anymore and their love wasn’t romantic and innocent because the environment they were in would never allow it. Sometimes, the only way they could show their love was through painful, cruel choices. It was messy, angsty and the levels of yearning were through the roof. And the saddest part was it was through no fault of their own but as a result of the hatred and tension between the two gangs.
Their relationship was charged, unpredictable and quite honestly tragic (which is quite fitting considering the novel is a retelling of a tragedy). This picture basically sums it up (Roma would be the one with the rose, Juliette with the knife).
The side characters were all amazing and shone in their own rights. Gong’s take on Benvolio and Mercutio with Benedikt and Marshall was spot on and their relationship was so precious. Especially with Marshall, she really captured Mercutio’s dramatic, sarcastic nature perfectly. All of their scenes made me smile.
I was so glad that Juliette got some wing women too! Kathleen (who was trans!) was so kind and soft, I felt bad for her because she always took too much on and felt too much then ended up neglecting herself. I also found passionate, headstrong Rosalind to be an interesting character. Instead of taking too much on, she kept too much bottled up inside. She was so similar to Juliette it was uncanny, the only difference was that one was the heir and the other wasn’t. I loved how even though their personalities clashed they were there for each other always.
And if you found fiery Tybalt to be infuriating in Romeo and Juliet… wait until you meet Tyler. Gong really hit the nail on the head with him, capturing the same volatile nature that makes Tybalt so detestable. His arrogant nature was a façade for his weaknesses but obviously he got away with it because he was a man. While Juliette, the extremely competent heir, had to work twice as hard to prove her worth.
The world-building was immersive and detailed, it felt like a glimpse of the past. I liked how both the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers were both so distinct in their general aesthetics and in their core values and principles. 1920s Shanghai was a brilliant backdrop for the story. It was a setting full of contrasts and divisions mirroring the divisions and conflicts between the characters. Gong also seamlessly wove in a commentary on the destructive effects of imperialism and colonialism, racism and xenophobia into the narrative and setting making the story all the more relevant and hard-hitting.
I also loved the subtleties of language that the author portrayed: the characters switched between different dialects, different languages were used in different settings, words were more meaningful in one language as opposed to another. As someone who sometimes merges at least four different languages into one sentence, I appreciated it very much and it made the world feel more real and alive.
I thought the addition of the contagion and the monster was genius. It expanded on a tiny detail in the play and gave the story more urgency by increasing the stakes. It also served as a plot device exposing the ugliness, greed and apathy lying beneath Shanghai’s vibrant exterior. The monster was like a metaphor for the monstrosities of imperialism and colonialism that were ravaging Shanghai. The protagonists were given the challenge of defeating a monster without becoming one themselves.
I found it chillingly similar to real life how those in power couldn’t see how dangerous the disease was and didn’t see the need to address it. For example, both Roma and Juliette’s parents were too proud and accustomed to power to think anything could unseat it. Leaving the younger generation to pick up the pieces and find a solution.
These Violent Delights is a brilliant read that captures all the drama, humour, action and emotion of the play it retells whilst also making it more relevant and exciting for modern day readers. This is a book I would recommend to everyone (as long as you can handle the more gory aspects) that will entertain and provoke thought.
The twists were truly incredible and the ending was the most exquisite form of agony. I don’t know how I will survive until the sequel comes out. I obviously won’t spoil what happens but suffice to say: these violent delights really do have violent ends.
Have you read These Violent Delights? What were your thoughts? Are there any Shakespeare retellings that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments!