Chloe Gong’s YA debut These Violent Delights is a fairly violent fantasy set in 1920s Shanghai with very deliberate and obvious echoes of Romeo and Juliette. The mix of influences and styles seems like an attempt to mash all of Gong’s loves into a single narrative. And when it is not too distracting, it works.
Juliette Cai is the heir to Shanghai’s Chinese-run Scarlet Gang. She has just returned from four years in New York, a place she fled to after a brutal attack by the Scarlet’s arch enemies the Russian-run White Flower Gang. The White Flower Gang is run by the Montagov family, and the heir to that empire is Roma, who four years before had been in a secret relationship with Juliette. At this point, the linkages to Romeo and Juliette are more than obvious, and do not take the introduction of Roma’s friend Benedikt or Juliette’s cousins Rosalind and Kathleen. But this story only uses the names, blood-feud family enmity and some unrequited sexual tension between Roma and Juliette, as the background to a totally different tale.
That tale involves a monster that seems to emerge from the river, a spreading madness that has people ripping out their own throats (hence the violence), and political tensions in Shanghai involving the gangs, foreign interests and the rise of the Communists. Roma and Juliette, despite their mistrust of each other, both family-based and personal, are brought together to investigate the cause of the spreading madness in the city. That investigation is made more critical when Roma’s young sister Alisa is struck down with the madness and has to be sedated to prevent her taking her own life. The bulk of the story then is this investigation, made more difficult by the growing tensions on the streets of Shanghai.
As noted above, the links to Romeo and Juliette in this context while interesting (for example trying to pick how Gong has reinterpreted some of the quotes and references) can be distracting. The milieu and story that Gong has developed is interesting enough without this additional layer. In some ways it feels like a shorthand way of creating backstory for the two main characters. It occasionally feels like this is Gong’s attempt to imagine a sequel to Romeo and Juliette that is set four years later and imagines that rather than dying the two were given time to cool off and reset. But that would be ignoring aspects such as townsfolk ripping their own throats out or the fact that the Juliette in this story is a kick-arse, gun wielding investigator, who pulls off some Crouching Tiger-style action moves and has no trouble pulling the trigger when the need arises.
Putting the Romeo and Juliette homage to one side, These Violent Delights is an atmospheric, page turning, historical urban fantasy. This is a world in which people just accept that monsters are real and get on with trying to kill (or profit from) them. But Gong also captures the grungy and mercantile but glamorous world of 1920s Shanghai, thrown into political turmoil in the ongoing aftermath of the First World War. And just when it seems that Gong will not pull it all together in time… she doesn’t. While the main plot seems to be resolved, plenty of threads are left in flux and the stakes are raised again before the epilogue ends with a cheeky “To be continued…”. By that time Gong has made sure that readers will be back for more.