review: these violent delights duology by chloe gong

With the publication of “Our Violent Ends” (which is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, woohoo!), Chloe Gong’s duology retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” has come to a close. My heart is both so full and in so. much. pain.

“‘A rose is a rose, even by another name,’ he whispered. ‘But we choose whether we will offer beauty to the world, or if we will use our thorns to sting.'”

With the publication of Our Violent Ends (which is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, woohoo!), Chloe Gong‘s duology retelling of Romeo and Juliet has come to a close. My heart is both so full and in so. much. pain.

I thought I’d say goodbye to Roma and Juliette’s story (but thankfully not this universe) with my reviews of These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends, the two novels that make up this captivating saga which brings Shakespeare’s classic play into the ruthless but passionate world of 1920s Shanghai—a glamorous, gang-ruled city that is on the brink of civil war even as it tries to fight off foreign imperialism and a deathly, mysterious monster.

these violent delights

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

goodreads summary

“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.

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.

Content Warnings: death, violence, gore, insects, transphobia, drugs/alcohol

[SPOILERS Ahead]

rating

5/5

review

*Note: I wrote this review in 2020, after the release of These Violent Delights. This review was originally published on the Barnes & Noble website. Minor mechanical/grammatical errors have been edited.*

Chloe Gong’s stunning debut novel, These Violent Delights, is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, the respective heirs of the feuding Scarlet Gang and White Flowers who run the city, must work together to defeat a monster and the madness it brings. What’s more, they must also struggle to combat the simmering political turmoil between the Nationalists and Communists—which threatens the gang’s grasp on the city—and foreign powers who don’t have the people’s best interests at heart.

This is a dazzling and gripping novel. Chloe Gong took an age-old classic and added an amazing fantastical twist, sowed in politics and real-world “diseases,” breathed life and backstory into now three-dimensional side characters, and overall wrote with lyrical and captivating storytelling. I couldn’t put this book down.

What I love first and foremost about this novel is Gong’s storytelling skills. Her prose is absolutely riveting, sculpting the characters and drawing the reader into a Shanghai that existed a century ago with detailed, decadent descriptions. Her ability to capture different mannerisms and the character of “The City Above the River,” and to weave a suspenseful and well-paced plot full of mystery and high stakes, shows Gong’s strength as a writer.

Even after Shakespeare’s famous play has been adapted countless times, Gong still brings something novel. Her addition of a new monster, unique to the setting of Shanghai, raises the stakes of the plot and gives a deeper motivation to the two characters. The monster, with its origins and the way it operates, becomes a central point of mystery and thrill within the novel. Through her plot, Gong interweaves a demonstration of the dangers and exploitations of settler-colonialism and imperialism.

Gong also revamps the side characters to give them their own importance and backstory. She delves into explorations of LGBTQ+ experiences, and hopefully there will be even more to come in the sequel. By spending time with these side characters, Gong lends importance to their stories.

Overall, this first book from Chloe Gong proves that her masterful writing is here to stay. This new YA fantasy romance novel is sure to become a new favorite with readers. “Enduring” is what comes to mind when I think of what this novel’s trajectory will be, long after its debut.

our violent ends

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

goodreads summary

Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls ‘deliciously dark.’

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of a civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.”

Content Warnings: death, violence, gore, insects, transphobia, drugs/alcohol, self-harm, parental abuse/neglect, arson, murder, racism/racial micro-aggressions, kidnapping

[SPOILERS Ahead]

rating

5/5

review

Our Violent Ends picks up where These Violent Delights left off—with Roma and Juliette once again on feuding sides, and with more angry bitterness (and angsty pining) than ever. Roma believes Juliette betrayed him and that not only was their rekindled romance a lie, but also that she truly murdered his best friend, Marshall Seo. Juliette, on the other hand, has to deal with the implications of her lie, believing that maintaining it is the only way to protect Roma, herself, and the city.

Meanwhile, political tensions in the city continue to grow until they’re about to reach a breaking point: the consequences could mean the end of the gangster-ruled way of life in Shanghai and with it, the power of the Cais and the Montagovs. In order for this city to survive, each character must struggle to deal with the blood feud, these mounting civil tensions, increasing foreign influence, and a new monstrosity in the city.

Our Violent Ends was probably my most anticipated release of the entire year—I’d been waiting for it ever since I finished reading These Violent Delights last November. And let me tell you: our lord and savior Chloe Gong did not disappoint. (Not that any of us expected her to.)

It took me about five chapters to really get hooked into the story. Gong writes these novels with a beautiful, lyrical voice but it took me some time to get used to it again. That, paired along with a tense shift that I wasn’t expecting at first (but which I retrospectively realize is an important indicator in the novel!) and some beginning scenes that feature secondary relationships (what can I say, I’m just a sucker for Roma-Juliette interactions) kept me near the surface of the story. However, once I got over that short bump, I couldn’t put the book down: Gong’s storytelling is just so enthralling that I couldn’t resist being pulled in entirely. I ended up staying up until six a.m. to finish the book, which I think tells you something about how captivating it is.

This book delivers on all the thrill, passion, suspense, plot twists, three-dimensional characters, complicated politics, and dazzling world-building of book one and more.

When I first read the synopsis to this story, I was curious about how Gong would create obstacles that were different from those in These Violent Delights, as much of them—monsters, politics, blood feud—sounded similar. However, Gong blew me away with how she was able to raise the stakes and still keep me in suspense as I tried to learn more about the new monsters, the blackmailer, and the spy. Gong masterfully weaves in so many intricate details and plotlines that I was constantly hooked. She crafts so many moments of dawning realizations with her Chekhov’s guns, like Rosalind’s necklace and list.

To me, Gong’s plot works so well because she plays around with Shakespeare’s original storyline. I truly thought it was the end when Roma hears of Juliette’s (faked) death, but she ends up bursting in at just the right moment, which I thought was so clever of Gong. Because then, I truly had no idea what direction the story would go. I think it’s really bold of Gong to deviate from the expectations we have of a story we’ve heard over and over, but I think that’s also what ultimately makes her plot so successful. Although the ending—with Roma and Juliette’s graves side by side—though painful, isn’t that surprising (even though I’d like to believe, like Alisa, that Roma and Juliette are out there together somewhere), how we get there completely is.

One of the aspects that I’ve praised most about These Violent Delights is how fleshed out every single character is—they all have their complex motivations and desires and unique personalities. Gong continues to explore these characters even deeper in Our Violent Ends. My favorite member of the cast was and continues to be Marshall because he is just so! damn! lovable! but I loved getting insight into a whole range of characters’ perspectives, whether it was Kathleen or Rosalind or Tyler or Benedikt or Alisa’s.

And speaking of Marshall, LET’S TALK ABOUT HIS ROMANCE ARC WITH BENEDIKT! Maybe it’s anathema to say this, but I might even love their romance more than I love Roma and Juliette’s? Gong truly plays the long game with their relationship but it PAYS OFF SO WELL. All the angst and mutual pining hurt so good but they get their confession, their kiss, their running away to hopefully live happily ever after!! (Sidenote: I love to imagine an alternate universe where Alisa goes with them in the end and they’re a happy little found family together.) I don’t own the B&N edition of this book but I desperately want to read the short story because I need more Benedikt-Marshall in my life.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t absolutely love the Roma-Juliette arc in OVE because I 1000% did. Their love-hate for each other is so painfully good as they keep saving each other but are unable to explain why. I just love angsty mutual pining and Gong delivered all of it. The fake-dating (or should I say fake-marriage?) and each time they call each other lǎopó or qīn ài de or dorogaya BROKE ME. Even though I’m someone who gets easily cheesed out by mushy lines, I was honestly just completely happy for Roma and Juliette when they’re able to get some moments of peace together while the world outside erupts, and can finally profess their undying love for each other.

I can’t review this duology without mentioning Gong’s absolutely masterful world-building. She completely brings her imagining of 1927 Shanghai to life—it becomes a character itself, a pulsing entity that drives the story. All of her setting descriptions are so so beautiful and real and atmospheric. I could picture everything in my mind and I know from Gong’s Twitter that she puts so much detailed research into writing her books, but I can’t even imagine to what depths she must’ve gone in order to bring this world to life.

As someone who lived a few years in Shanghai as a little kid, has visited several times since, and has a parent working there, the city has a very special place in my heart. I can picture the Bund, the French Concession, the Huangpu River in my mind as they are now—but Gong brings them to life as they were then, lets me imagine and know the histories and the people who might’ve inhabited this city, and that is so special to me. Even Zhouzhuang, the canal town not far from Shanghai, is described in such a real way. I’ve visited there too as a tourist, but Gong gives life to it in a different way. The way she describes the thick walls, the place by the water where people can do their laundry…I could picture myself walking through the narrow alleys with Roma and Juliette. I don’t know any other author who writes settings the way Gong does.

I loved seeing the Mandarin words in pīnyīn incorporated throughout the novel as well, because the way they mesh so seamlessly with the rest of the prose echoes exactly how I will think in my head and speak to my family, a constant mix of English and Mandarin. As a diaspora kid, Gong’s use of language means so much.

In fact, as a diaspora kid, this entire duology means so much, the love letter it is to my homeland, to the fierce love we hold for our culture and place even as we are unabashed in the fact that we are Chinese American, just as Juliette is unashamed in her identity as “Juliette.”

Gong is also a master at interweaving politics and tying the monster(s) to the city and its political brewings. I felt that she truly captures how nuanced and complicated history is. I really appreciated how she portrays the effects of imperialism, as well as how power conflicts between the elite end up hurting the masses, the people—and how different characters have to grapple with this truth.

“In the end, the only ones who would ever pay for such destruction, in blood and in guts, were the people.”

The ending of the novel is a heartbreaking but truly fitting conclusion for two characters who love each other and their city so much. The epilogue leaves us with the same hope that Alisa has, but even if Roma and Juliette are truly gone, we are still filled with a hope that their love is enduring and powerful enough to change their city for the better.

“But this was their love—violent and bloody. This city was their love.”

In the end, this story of Roma and Juliette is the story of how powerful it is to hope, to love. As Gong writes in the epilogue, it’s love that persists and endures through all.

This duology is such a special one that I’ll be returning to over and over, and that I’ll be thinking of for a long, long time. Gong truly delivered with the sequel and though I’m sad that this part of the story is over, I can’t wait for Foul Lady Fortune!

Have you read These Violent Delights and/or Our Violent Ends? What are your thoughts? Come scream with me in the comments below!

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Author: april | lostinthebookstacks

hello! i'm april (she/her), an asian american reader who’s passionate about words and scallion pancakes.

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