I was somewhat skeptical about this book going into it simply because of how it was marketed as a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare retellings can be hit-and-miss. Thankfully, These Violent Delights is a hit! Chloe Gong takes the broad strokes of Romeo and Juliet but adapts the story quite heavily. There are some subtle nods (like a bar named Mantua) and some really nice set pieces (like the mistaken-for-dead moment) that Gong makes her own. All in all, I was able to sink into this story and not worry about comparing it to the material that inspired parts of it.
Juliette Cai is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, which runs one half of 1920s Shanghai. Their rivals are the White Flowers, and Juliette once had a forbidden romance with their heir, Roma Montagov. That was nipped in the bud, but Juliette is back after four years away in the United States—just in time for a madness to sweep through Shanghai, the people afflicted all tearing out their own throats. Juliette and Roma both become the investigators for their respective gangs, so they get thrown together under extreme circumstances: enemies turned lovers turned enemies again—can they put aside the betrayal of the past to prevent a betrayal in the present?
It took me a while to get into the story. I think this is because of how Gong throws us into the plot very quickly. I barely had time to get to know Juliette before Roma’s first appearance, and that apprehension in the back of my mind about how closely this story might hew to the play likely had a role as well. So it says something about Gong’s storytelling that, eventually, I got sucked in. I wanted Juliette and Roma to find the solution to this deadly mystery as much as they did.
On top of the mystery, there is a lot happening regarding the power relations in Shanghai. Partly historical, partly science fictional, this book plays fast and loose with the political situation in Shanghai in the 1920s. Nevertheless, as someone who isn’t familiar at all with Shanghai and its history, I found it fascinating. The cast are diverse in terms of race as well as gender—I was pleasantly surprised to see a trans character among Juliette’s allies—and Gong explores how this Chinese city has been encroached upon by foreign powers (i.e., white people). Indeed, the mystery itself is a kind of commentary on the fight for the very heart of Shanghai and its people.
My one criticism? The cliffhanger ending. This appears to be a duology, and I am so glad that the second book is out (and also available from my library), because I was incensed. Yes, the primary mystery gets solved—but enough of the plot is left unresolved that it almost ruined my enjoyment of the rest of the book! Again, this says a lot about how much faith I’m putting in Gong that I will read the sequel after such a betrayal. I need to find out if Juliette Cai is truly the ruthless killer she has told herself that she must be.