Hi, book fam! I’m super excited about being able to feature this book because if you haven’t heard of These Violent Delights, you’ll want to listen close. It’s one of the most hyped up books of the year and having the opportunity to read and review an early copy was a dream come true. I had reached out in as many ways as I could for a physical copy but alas, it was in vain. But Caffeine Book Tours is my knight in shining armour; a huge thank you goes out to Shealea for having me on this tour. Now, minor spoilers ahead!
These Violent Delights: Very Violent and Very Delightful
Jump to Section:
- Plot, Prose and Pacing: Is This A History Textbook?
- Characters: Second Fiddle to the Plot
- Themes: Cultural Nuances & Politics
- As A Retelling: Inspiration Not Imitation
- Did I Enjoy It?: Conclusion
- Book Information
“My name was too Chinese for the West”
my thoughts are all over the place
just like this plot
i’m exaggerating, a little
Much like A Golden Fury, These Violent Delights is split into two halves: the exciting, knuckle-biting half and the boring, exposition half. You can guess which comes first.
Plot, Prose and Pacing: Is This A History Textbook?
Going into the book, I was constantly complaining about how draggy everything seemed; reading it was a painful struggle of putting it down and powering through. Reminiscent of Jade City, These Violent Delights begins with a heavy amount of exposition, introducing us to the characters as well as the political, social and economical setting of Gong’s 1920’s Shanghai where the White Flowers and the Scarlet Gang reigned supreme. Local law enforcement left them well enough alone with the city divided into two territorial halves. We are tossed and thrown around the characters and Shanghai as the monster in their midst begins to take lives on both sides: a plague that sends it’s victims into a mad frenzy, literally ripping out their own throats and clawing at their skin. But as the physical monster grows, threatening the life and existence the two gangs are accustomed to, a more sinister monster raises it’s ugly head; a monster of communism and colonialism personified. Along with the monster killing their people, Juliette and Roma are forced to confront the changing political ecosystem of their beloved city, one that threatens to bring about more bloodshed and violence the gangs could never imagine.
“You didn’t scheme up a madness to spread through the city? No plans at all to cause enough death until the gangsters are weak and the workers are frightened, until the factories have ripened into the ideal conditions for the Communists to swoop in an incite revolution?”
If that felt like a mouthful, this is just a snippet of the These Violent Delights experience! All of this information is crammed into the first twenty percent of the book, making a huge and important chunk of the story one of telling-not-showing exposition, whiny introspection on Juliette and Roma’s part and frankly, poor writing. I was beginning to wonder if the problem was with me as everyone is rating the book highly! The pacing suffered due to information dumping, the writing was informational and emotionless with any sort of tension all but non-existent; it felt like reading a history textbook. A lot of time is spent in Juliette and Roma’s heads, telling us how they felt rather than showing us. And for gang leaders in waiting, they were annoyingly whiny and any angst seemed rather misplaced; their romance uninspired and lacking. This was not a pair of star-crossed lovers, dying to be in each other’s arms; their banter lacked conviction. At this point, the side characters were infinitely more entertaining and colourful. The prose is flowery and pretentious, affecting the pacing (much like this review, to be honest!). It is clear that the second half of the book was what Gong had intended to write and the first half was merely there to support the material.
And as I skimmed through the information dump and scene setting, somewhere along the way, it got better. The pacing picked up speed and soon, we were running through the streets with Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, star-crossed lovers and gang leaders in the making. It became incredibly sexy (as sexy as you can get while trying to eradicate a plague, of course!) and action-packed with lots of grunge neon lighting, skulking through streets and gunfighting. It shifted from boring exposition to gut-wrenching action. The banter felt more natural; the characters more alive. And it all started with that infamous balcony scene.
Much like it’s source material, These Violent Delights takes a romantic classic and made it even better. It was incredibly sexy, forbidden and filled to bursting with angst; just thinking about that scene and how Gong rewrote it to fit her novel gives me the chills. It was the ultimate expression of both Juliette and Roma’s personalities and the mountain that separates them; but also, it was the moment the two decided: united they stand, divided they fall.
Characters: Second Fiddle to the Plot
While Juliette is a wonderfully developed and fleshed out character, there is much left to be desired when it comes to Roma. His character cycles between soft smol and dangerous killer with much disconnect. He abhors violence and fighting yet rarely endeavours to resolve matters with non-violent means. He rarely holds to his principles and succumbs to the pressure to prove himself worthy of being in the gang with bloody fights. It is as if Gong had an image or a vision of Roma in mind as soft and non-violent but the story did not serve that image. It’s a little jarring as he spends most of the latter half of the book in killer mode and shows more mature and clear emotions rather than just being soft and smol. I would interpret this as you can’t be soft when you’re the leader of a gang but on more than one occasion, Gong has stressed on her social media that Roma is a soft smol compared to Juliette’s killer edge.
I would have rather had two evenly matched and incredibly dangerous killers fighting their love.
“Astra inclinant sed non obligant. The stars incline us, they do not bind us.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for boys having feelings! But, there is a glaring difference in how Juliette’s emotions were written compared to Roma. Juliette, on the other hand, remains rather consistent and while she shows a humane side, remains as hard as a diamond. Fierce, unforgiving and determined to fight for her place in the Scarlet Gang, Juliette will go to any length to protect her self-interests. She is stone cold but she also demonstrates a softer, more protective side when it comes to her own inner circle. Her emotions and personality feel more well-thought out and believable. Where she starts as hardened and jaded, in the face of real danger and of course, love, Juliette shows us a side she keeps hidden from the world. I absolutely loved Juliette and all her motivations; she’s an incredibly well-written character. I even hated her in the beginning before I truly began to understand her.
Along with Juliette and Roma, we have a couple of other players who are instrumental in These Violent Delights. It’s not for me to judge if this is mere tokenism or true representation but Gong did include a couple of LGBTQIA+ characters who got their own page time and plot lines:
- Rosalind (Scarlet Gang); Kathleen’s twin and a fashionable burlesque dancer with a chip on her shoulder
- Kathleen (Scarlet Gang); Rosalind’s twin and a transgender woman who has infiltrated the Communists
- Benedikt (White Flowers); Roma’s cousin who demonstrates some obsessive compulsive disorder and is very serious
- Marshall (White Flowers); Benedikt’s constant companion and is very charming
Themes: Cultural Nuances & Politics
Being an #OwnVoices book, These Violent Delights‘s many cultural nuances are best understood by Asians. Right at the beginning of the book, Juliette notices that before she left for America, their dining table was round but it has now been swapped out for a rectangular one, to appeal to Westerners but it made conversation difficult. In Chinese culture, round tables are preferred, especially by older folk as they are better suited to conversing with everybody on the same table. While on rectangular tables, you are limited to the people beside you and those directly in front of you. Furthermore, round tables are seen as more auspicious as they are a never ending circle. This change highlights the tiny things that Asians do to appeal to Westerners.
“If the foreigners wanted to celebrate us, they could begin by remembering this is our country, not theirs.”
Juliette also waxes poetic about how she and her cousins had to select Western names to seem more Westernised, to be able to fit in with her American peers, to seem more appealing to the Westerners who were pouring into Shanghai. Even when Juliette was young, she shunned her Chinese roots and instead adopted Western styles of dressing, holding herself above the girls who wore Chinese-styled clothing. She had chosen to be called Juliette as the children in America could not pronounce her name, made fun of it, in fact; it is a very real reality that Asians face. Even I had chosen an Angelicised name for myself as it would have been too difficult when dealing with my clients to get them to pronounce my Chinese name and say it right.
Juliette also fears disapproval from parents; not just because she will lose their position of power but also because parental disapproval is a truly Asian thing. While Western YA protagonists do disappoint their parents, it often comes with lots of reassurances and pep talks while disappointing an Asian parent feels like failure. It is the inability to live us to what your parents want you to be and honoring your familial legacy; it is often related to holding up the family name.
But, where These Violent Delights truly shines is in the not so subtle conversation it seeks to ignite and examine: colonialism and communism. Here is where Gong shows she is a force to be reckoned with as she integrates the changing political and economical scape with the lives of her characters. Gangs like the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers are not alien to China’s history as triads and gangsters have existed even in the past; these are people who control the economy and provide protection to the people of a township or city. As Shanghai continues to grow as an international trading hub, opening it’s doors up to foreign influences, foreigners, particularly those of the West, increasingly seek to control trade and business, manipulating it into their favour. While international trade and sharing ideas for modernity are beneficial to both parties, as Juliette says, it often comes with the mindset that the Westerners are saving the Asians. And, as they spread their influence and recruit locals to their cause, they encroach on the local society in the name of colonialism and with their white saviour mindset, eradicate the local culture and way of life. We can see this happen as the Westerners constantly seek to ally themselves to the White Flowers or Scarlet Gang. In fact, this provides a basis for one of the plots in the book, truly making These Violent Delights apt for discussions on colonialism and it’s effects.
“She thought it preposterous that her father had to ask permission to run business on land their ancestors had lived and died on from men who had simply docked their boat here and decided they would like to be in charge now.”
On the other hand, Communism begins to grow in fervour amongst the Chinese. I am, however, not an expert on how Communism came about in China and would not be able to elaborate much the subject. But, These Violent Delights do paint a rather accurate picture of the sentiments surrounding the ideological movement and the violence it was able to incite as more Chinese began to embrace the ideals, especially after living under the thumb of the gangsters and the Westerners. It provides a rather blatant examination of how the figureheads of the movement are able to inspire the sort of fanaticism and belief in the people. By putting Juliette and Roma in the thick of things, it just goes to show that the ideology would never be truly feasible and its supporters are led into blind zealousness over its ideals without truly examining the power structure behind it.
“Do you know what will happen instead? They listen to the sweet nothings of their missionaries. They take it upon themselves to be our saviours. They roll tanks onto our streets and then they place their government in Shanghai, and before you know it . . . Thank goodness we colonised the Chinese when we did. Who knows how they may have otherwise destroyed themselves.”
Honestly, These Violent Delights gives me chills with how beautifully it wove politics into its threads of Romeo and Juliet and the message it sought to deliver. While Romeo and Juliet rarely focused on the political aspect of Verona, I find that most retellings do incorporate politics into their stories such as the short-lived Still Star-Crossed.
As A Retelling: Inspiration Not Imitation
But These Violent Delights is a retelling in the loosest sense of the word possible. It does feature a decades long rivalry between the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers, two star-crossed lovers, a delectable balcony scene, a very intriguing use of the sleeping poison and a cast of characters constantly at each other’s throats. But that’s where the resemblance ends. As Gong explains, her book still holds true to the core themes of Romeo and Juliet: love, hate and loyalty.
However, I could not get behind the monster. And despite it being called a monster, it’s existence is more science fiction than fantasy! Although it played a massive role in the book, referring to it as a monster as opposed to a more Chinese-appropriate name also really bothered me because us Chinese also have our own ghosts, ghouls and for lack of better term, monster. A hideous, misshapen mess carrying a plague would have more feasibly been named something else. I also could not remotely understand why there needed to be a monster when there was already a plague; probably to give Juliette and Roma something to chase across Shanghai. It seemed completely unrealistic.
Did I Enjoy It?: Conclusion
In conclusion, These Violent Delights is a book that needs to be read multiple times if you want to truly enjoy it. Despite it’s multitude of flaws, it is a refreshing and enjoyable read, if you have the fortitude to power through the first twenty percent of utter boredom and lot of telling, not showing. It also hides a more serious message underneath it’s romance YA facade which made it all the more engaging as I began to be able to relate to Juliette and Roma. Furthermore, despite being a Romeo and Juliet retelling, there is a decided lack of focus on the romance and it wasn’t until perhaps the last thirty percent of the book that I actually felt some connection between Juliette and Roma. Oh, and did I mention, cliffhanger?
Thank you to Caffeine Book Tours and the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from an ARC and may not reflect in a finished copy.
Chloe Gong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and international relations. During her breaks, she’s either at home in New Zealand or visiting her many relatives in Shanghai. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear when “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” is chanted into a mirror three times.
These Violent Delights
Author: Chloe Gong
Series: These Violent Delights Duology #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Date Published: November 17th, 2020
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.