Voted one of the best young adult books of 2020, “These Violent Delights” is a strong and creative retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1920s Shanghai.
Chloe Gong’s debut novel captures this story and twists it into a tale with high-stakes action, monsters in the shadows and a brilliant cast of ruthless characters. This New York Times bestseller is sure to please both fantasy fans and lovers of the original Shakespeare story.
Love, Betrayal, and Monsters
In 1926, a brutal blood feud between two gangs runs through the streets of Shanghai.
Juliette Cai, the 18-year-old heir of the Scarlet Gang, returns from her stay in New York City ready to lead the gang’s network of criminals. The White Flowers are their only rivals, who have fought and grown a hatred for the Scarlets over many generations. Behind every dirty scheme is their heir, Roma Montagov, who was Juliette’s first love before he betrayed her.
When a sickness spreads through Shanghai, resulting in the infected clawing their own throats out, the city is left helpless amid the madness. Some point to a contagion, while others claim the sickness formed from a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
In “These Violent Delights,” Juliette and Roma must settle their differences and work together to stop this chaos, for the good of their city, before the contagion spreads too far.
From the beginning, Gong pulls in the reader with her vivid descriptions and a fast-paced storyline. NPR calls the book a “rich portrait of a seldom-depicted time and place,” capable of depicting 1920s Shanghai during the Opium Wars, the rise of communism and the ongoing battle for supremacy between the French and English, all while maintaining its fantastical feel.
The perfect blend of mystery, romance and historical fiction with fantasy elements help the story build itself, while revealing a thickening plot with just enough pace. The suspense is built nicely throughout. A creepy atmosphere touches every other scene, making it easy for readers to get chills thinking about the unknown of the Shanghai monster. The overall pacing is well-planned, though sometimes a bit slow, and the plot is refreshing compared to the sea of tired young adult Western fantasies.
Above anything else, the characters –– and their interactions with each other and their cultures –– make this novel an immersive experience. While the characters share similar names and roles to that of Shakespeare’s original work, “familiar themes of family, loyalty and identity bear new significance in Gong’s inventive adaptation,” according to Kirkus Reviews.
Juliette was born in China and lived in America for some time, and because of this, she is constantly torn between her two identities. Though she is strong on the inside and out, she often feels like an outsider. This theme of losing and finding one’s identity is a compelling aspect of the story, and it’s shown clearly through Juliette’s personal struggles. Juliette is not always split between two worlds, though. In her day-to-day life, she is surprisingly cunning and often ruthless, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty if it helps protect her people. For these reasons and more, Juliette is a character you can’t help but feel intrigued by.
Similarly, Roma Montagov is not all that he seems. As an equally ruthless heir, he’s much less vicious than he appears to be and doesn’t crave violence in the way that Juliette often does. Rather than seeking solutions through fights, he prefers to think rationally and lead by way of thought, instead of might. He’s surprisingly caring and gentle toward the important people in his life, and sometimes that includes Juliette as well, no matter how much she’s willing to deny it. Roma and Juliette share a tragic history, though they’re no longer friends and Juliette intends on staying enemies. Though the romance dynamic is different from “Romeo and Juliet,” these violent star-crossed lovers are still the stars of the show, especially when paired with the clever and funny side characters.
While the story itself is thrilling, the ending alone is filled with action and heartbreak enough to make the audience wish they could read the sequel immediately.
The Author’s Creation
With such a strong fantasy concept, it’s no wonder Gong quickly became one of 2020’s youngest best-selling authors. Although this is her debut novel, this gripping historical fantasy ensures that readers will continue to praise her work. However, Gong’s journey to publication was full of surprises and triumphs.
Gong started writing “These Violent Delights” during her freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania. Though she had written several full-length novels throughout her youth, the plot and inspiration for “These Violent Delights” struck something in her heart like never before. She knew she wanted to write a story about Shanghai, where she was born, and suddenly had the idea to blend it with one of Shakespeare’s classic plays. “I wanted to write a blood-fused story, and then I wanted to write something set in 1920’s Shanghai,” she said in an interview. “I kept merging that together, and I was thinking ‘rival gangsters,’ and I kind of wanted to do a Romeo and Juliet retelling… Sometimes it’s the small things that pop in and out, and then I just end up weaving them together.”
Raised by first-generation immigrant parents, Gong’s cultural connection to Shanghai was always tied with her family. These experiences, in addition to her fascination with books and her own culture, eventually shifted into reflections on her culture’s past and how it might shape the background for her debut novel. “Even though I grew up in New Zealand, at home, we were speaking Shanghainese, cooking Chinese food, celebrating Chinese holidays. It was like talking to Juliette’s narrative. Which world do I belong to? And the historical Shanghai aspect was my attempt to learn whatever I was exposed to, because I didn’t grow up there, so the research I was doing was from that foreign angle.”
In the end, all of Gong’s research has paid off. Now one of the youngest people on the NYT bestsellers list, with “These Violent Delights” going strong at over 17 weeks, Gong is grateful for everyone who believed in her. “I’m really happy to have an agent and editors who believe in me regardless of my age and furthermore take my age into account as just another facet of who I am as a person,” she said.
Additionally, she felt that getting published during her senior year of college felt like “leading a double life” with all the separate deadlines she had to juggle. “Publishing obligations just mean that I had to look further ahead than my fellow college students: If I planned out what I had due in the whole month instead of just looking ahead to what was due that week, I could make sure I was finishing my two essays and my manuscript.” Of course, when her novel received critical acclaim shortly after hitting the shelves last November, she knew the struggle was worth it.
Just out of college, Gong already has three future books planned for publication. The sequel and finale to her debut, “These Violent Ends,” releases in November 2021. Her next two-book series, “Foul Lady Fortune,” will follow a familiar character as a spy in Imperial Japan, and will expand on the characters and world of her first series. Seeing as she already has so many fans intrigued by her first published novel alone, Gong does not appear to be leaving the publishing scene any time soon.
The product of an intriguing mystery, a forbidden romance and the beautiful prose of a young but talented author, “These Violent Delights” blends multiple compelling stories and leaves the audience begging for more in the best possible way.