YA Weekend: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fantasy, Romance
Series: Book 1 of These Violent Delights
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (November 17, 2020) | Tantor Audio (January 26, 2021)
Length: Hardcover: 449 pages | Audiobook: 14 hrs and 14 mins
Audiobook Narrator: Cindy Kay
I’ll be honest, These Violent Delights took me longer to finish than I would consider normal for myself, and ultimately I believe it was due to a combination of several things which I will elaborate on below. When I first started coming across some of the mixed reviews for this book though, I didn’t want to believe them. The premise sounded so amazing and I so badly wanted it to reach its potential, and to its credit, things did seem wonderful when I first started—at least for a brief time. Frustratingly, it was once the second half rolled around that the story began to undercut everything that made the beginning so great.
Billed as a loose retelling of Romeo and Juliet in the gangster-ridden streets of Shanghai in 1926, These Violent Delights stars Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, scions of their respective criminal empires. He is the heir to a Russian gang called White Flowers, while she is the Chinese heiress to the Scarlet Gang, two sides that have been forever at war over territory and influence in the city. In the midst of all the fighting, however, a mysterious and supernatural force may soon rise up from the shadows and destroy them all.
At first, it was just a few isolated cases: reports of gang members from both sides overcome by a kind of madness that causes them to tear out their own throats. As the number of these horrific incidents begin to climb though, both the White Flowers and the Scarlet Gang grow worried. Is it some kind of disease? How contagious is it? Muddying things even further are the whispers of a monster lurking in the dark waters of the Huangpu River. Unable to ignore the rising death toll, Juliette decides to do her own investigation, and to her chagrin, discovers along the way that her White Flowers counterpart has been doing the same thing. She and Roma both come to the conclusion that in order to save their beloved Shanghai, they must put aside their animosity long enough to put a stop to what’s killing their people. Still, it’s not going to be easy. Bad enough that their two houses are mortal enemies, but Roma and Juliette were once lovers as well—until he betrayed her.
First, the good: I loved the setting of 1920s Shanghai, an era in which the city was famously known as “the Paris of the East, the New York of the West” and became a commercial hub for East Asia. As the result of attracting visitors from all over the world, the city between divided between a more European half and more traditional Chinese half, which I thought the novel depicted very well. In the background was also the opium trade and the power struggle between the political and social factions of Shanghai, all of which author Chloe Gong tried to incorporate into this tale in some form, and the depth of her research cannot be denied. And then there were the characters and their circumstances. Reimagining Romeo and Juliet to this backdrop was certainly ambitious, but given the context of the historical elements, the concept couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
As for what could have been better…well, just about everything else. Part of the problem was that there was just so much going on. On top of all the historical aspects, gang activity, and character interpersonal drama, there seemed to be this insistence on loading this book to the gills with even more side plots and branching paths. The mysterious madness, the shadowy labs, and even an all-consuming monster! All cool ideas, but none felt developed to the point of coherence or unity with the rest of the plot. The main characters also seemed kind of bland, and their romance even less appealing. I mean, if you can’t enjoy the romance in a Romeo and Juliet retelling, then what is there?
I also found the overall writing style to be unstable. This being a debut, I’m not going to come down too hard on this aspect, but the overly flowery prose did grate on my nerves here and there. On the other hand, there were also moments of beauty, flashes of genuine brilliance, especially in the descriptions of the city. Having lived in Shanghai, I found myself familiar with many of the locations referenced in the book, from the bustling atmosphere of the Bund to some of the impressive architecture along the waterfront promenade, and there were definite moments where I felt Gong’s writing transport me back to that place.
Bottom line? These Violent Delights is a flawed debut, but there were also moments of greatness that I think with a little more polish could have made this a better novel. Chloe Gong is a new author, so I have no doubt more experience and books under her belt will help with issues like purple prose and balancing out the story details. I’m going to take a wait and see approach at this point, and check out the next book if there’s an assurance that a lot of the threads left hanging here the will be further developed.