MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.
“This is what this city is, the party at the end of the world.”
Wow! What a rollercoaster. Honestly, this book gave me the most twists and turns out of all the fantasy books I’ve read; every page was refreshing and action-packed. Although the book is marketed as a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, I think that it’s more inspired by Romeo and Juliet? That didn’t bother me too much except I went in with different expectations.
“These days, Juliette… the most dangerous people are the powerful white men who feel as if they have been slighted.”
The story begins with badass Juliette who was sent to America in order to be safe from the blood feud between hers and Roma’s gangs but returned at age 18 to claim her throne as the heiress of the Cai family! Juliette and Roma are basically lovers to enemies with so much yearning. This book was a real slow-burn. Sometimes, I just desperately wanted them to talk to each other so they wouldn’t be internalizing such sadness.
Once Juliette returns, she grapples with proving herself to Shanghai — to the city that did not raise her, a Western girl, but is hers through blood. What impressed me was Juliette’s internal dialogues and commentary on Western imperialism in Shanghai, as well as how she explores her identity and role both when she was abroad and in Shanghai. I can clearly see Gong’s experiences as an Asian diaspora through Juliette: the feeling of in-betweenness, the existence between borders, the intersection between the West and the East. Juliette’s background as an ‘American girl’ gave her depth I have not seen with many YA protagonists! I especially loved how she described her out-of-place experiences in America, the racism she encountered, and the empowerment she gained as a flapper girl. Juliette’s character is unique, strong, and just cool.
Then comes Roma, the edgy, constantly sad but adorable love interest. I loved Roma. I loved the complexity of his character and how he, too, struggles against the established institutions in Shanghai. Also, I really liked Roma’s background and Gong’s storytelling of the Russian Revolution and the stories of migration through the Montagov; I can truly tell that Gong put so much work and thought into research. Additionally, Roma’s thoughts and deliberate decisions regarding Juliette are very realistic. Gong didn’t choose to make the relationship cheesy or anything but rather nuanced and dependent on the choices of each character: what choices will they make? What will they choose, family or each other?
Now onto the plot: Juliette and Roma must work together on stopping the madness in Shanghai and saving their city together. The twist is that it’s not just about their love story or the rivalry of the families, Gong incorporated political and historical elements of Shanghai in the 1920s that was incredibly enjoyable to read! I thoroughly enjoyed the plot, it’s innovative, exciting, and integrates such important historical contexts. I actually went from reading The Burning God by RFK to These Violent Delights and was pleasantly surprised how These Violent Delights was actually a closer look at the KMT and CCP conflict and the interrelationships between different factions. Moreover, Chloe Gong’s smart and deliberate political commentary on the social castes system and capitalism was so intriguing; Gong’s writing effectively hones into the systemic issues masked behind the concept of globalization.
The only problem that I had was that the pacing felt a bit off. There are elements of magic within the political historical framework that Gong’s going for, which is totally fine, but magic was never mentioned as part of worldbuilding until deep into the book. It made the plot feel sort of weird and out of place. The last third of the book also felt very fast, the pacing a bit off than the earlier parts of the book. But, I genuinely enjoyed the plot and the incredibly interesting political intrigue! You can clearly tell how much thought Gong put into research and in creating complexities for these characters and the environments in which they are in.
One more thing, I LOVED Gong’s writing. It’s so beautifully descriptive and powerful in a way, especially when the characters comment on the social and political discourses. Overall, this was an enjoyable read and went far beyond my expectations. Even though this is only Gong’s first published book, I cannot wait to see her breakout soon in the future.