‘These Violent Delights’ is a brilliant concept – a loose Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a fantasy monster, gang warfare, and a fascinating look at colonialism – but suffers a little from the scale of its ambition. It’s certainly a fast-paced and intriguing YA fantasy, but it isn’t quite as gripping as I’d like it to be.
Juliette Cai has just returned home to Shanghai after completing her education in the USA. As the heir to the Scarlet Gang, her job now is to start integrating herself with her father’s contacts and cement her people’s loyalty to her – but instead, she finds herself entangled in a conspiracy with a mysterious – and invariably fatal – virus, and strange rumours of a monster. Even worse, her arch-enemy Roma Montagov – heir to the White Flowers – keeps showing up. Determined to solve the mystery before more of her people die – and before Roma beats her to it – Juliette embarks on a mission that will truly test her loyalty – to her family, to the Scarlet Gang, and to a particularly irritating enemy-turned-lover-turned-enemy who just keeps getting under her skin.
Juliette and Roma are both major POV characters, but Juliette is such a force of nature that she feels like the true protagonist. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s completely ruthless, almost uncaring of the feelings of others and willing to do anything to ensure her own success – but at her core is a heart of fragility and worry. Juliette has had to fight for her place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and she knows that one misstep will send everything tumbling down.
Roma, on the other hand, is far easier to like. He’s also a ruthless gangster, but makes no secret of how much he hates it. Roma’s position as heir to the White Flowers is just as tenuous as Juliette’s for the Scarlets, but for very different reasons – Juliette’s father is unsure of her suitability as a woman, and also slightly scared of her; Roma’s father thinks his son is soft and unworthy. He’s the sort of character you constantly want to give a hug, because everything keeps going wrong despite the fact he’s always trying to do the right thing.
The strength of this book is in the setting. It really draws you into the various microcosms of 1920s Shanghai, the feeling of multiple cities within cities, and the political tensions of a city and country in transition. Chloe Gong’s writing is gorgeous, and she absolutely captures a sense of place. I know very little about this time period or area of the world, and the way it’s depicted here makes me want to find out more.
The main issue I have with this book is that, for a Romeo and Juliette retelling, there’s very little emotional buildup. Roma and Juliette were together, then four years ago there was a massive betrayal resorting in them returning to mortal enemies. Now there’s a huge amount of tension – and potentially lingering feelings – but much of this is brushed over with a simple explanation of ‘things happened in the past’. The decision to tell us about their past relationship rather than show us a relationship developing weakens the romance, and thus the story. I struggle to understand why Roma likes Juliette when she does nothing likeable – it mostly seems to be nostalgia for a character we never see on page – and similarly, Roma seems like someone Juliette would despise for his weakness rather than fall in love with.
The other niggle I have is that the fantasy elements feel disjointed. The plotline about a virus and a monster feels discongruous with a story about gangsters in 1920s Shanghai. I absolutely adored the historical context and the glimpse into a time period and culture I know little about, and I almost wish the fantasy elements had been toned down to allow the history to shine through. The plot is mostly predictable, and I suspect part of the reason for that is so much exposition is required to make everything fit that some of the mystery is lost.
Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant setting, but perhaps one which takes on too much. Fans of enemies-to-lovers romance, Shakespeare, and strong characters who take no prisoners might love this, but it definitely feels like a debut.
Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 17th November 2020