Is there anything better than having a book exceed your expectations for it, and 100% live up to all the hype, when you thought it was going to let you down? Filled with angst, political tension, childhood friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers-to-enemies goodness and atmospheric worldbuilding, These Violent Delights was both one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, as well as one of my favourite reads of 2021. Because this book meant so much to me, instead of just reviewing it normally, I decided to have a discussion about all of my favourite parts! I’m also so grateful I was able to scream about (and discuss) it with The Subtle Asian Book Club, Tea Time Reads, as well as BOOKS GO BOOM! 💖
Title: These Violent Delights
Author: Chloe Gong
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Series: These Violent Delights
Trigger Warnings: This book contains mentions and descriptions of blood, violence, gore, character deaths, explicit description of gouging self (not of their own volition), murder, weapon use, insects, alcohol consumption, parental abuse.
Publication Date: November 17, 2020
Final Rating: 4.5 stars
Synopsis (via Goodreads):
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.
I read this book back in January, but I just couldn’t collect my thoughts until now. Although this was a Romeo and Juliet retelling, it was also SO much more. Rather than only focusing on the romance, we also got to see colonialism, rival gangs, immersive worldbuilding, and glittering Shanghai, like never before.
You destroy me and then you kiss me. You give me reason to hate you and then you give me reason to love you. Is this a lie or the truth? Is this a ploy or your heart reaching for me?
Believe me when I say Juliette could stab me, and I would thank her for it. She’s ingenious, badass, ruthless, merciless, heir to the Scarlet Gang, but also fiercely loyal towards the people she loves. I think along with creating characters readers love, Gong’s also created characters they both resonate, and empathize with. We get to see Juliette struggling with her identity, and feeling out of place, after growing up in America. Although she’s more Chinese than most of the people around her, she still prefers flapper dresses to qipaos, and is called by the name she used in America, rather than her Chinese name, which later leads her to question how much she really belongs in her hometown.
Complex characters are my favourite, which is another reason I fell in love with this book. Roma, our second main character, and heir to the White Flowers (the Scarlet Gang’s rival), is just so three-dimensional and I am HERE for it 😭✋🏼 Although from Juliette’s lens, he’s sometimes seen as cocky and arrogant, we later learn that there’s so much more to both, his character and personality. Learning about all the rejection Roma faces as heir to the White Flowers, as well as the approval he yearns for from his father, helped me understand that Roma’s character was not as Black and White as it seemed.
Don’t you dare,” Roma said. “Don’t you dare fall apart now, dorogaya.
Furthermore, seeing how he was mistreated when his dad found out about him and Juliette, and how he had to compromise her safety, as well as cope with his mother’s death had me close to tears. He wasn’t as fierce, ruthless, or tough as Juliette, and put on a facade, to hide how much he actually cared. At the end of the day, Roma was just a cinnamon roll, and him saying dorogaya to Juliette tugged at my heartstrings 🥺 But my absolute favourite thing about him was his relationships with the people he cared about because it was then, he actually removed his mask, and we got to see a glimpse of what he actually was like. Seeing how much he cared about Alisa (his sister), Juliette (only sometimes haha), Benedikt, and Marshall (aka my new OTP), brings me to my next point. The relationships between each of the characters.
The problem with hatred was that when the initial emotion weakened, the responses still remained. The clenched fist and hot veins, the blurred vision and quickened pulse. And in such remains, Juliette was not in control of what they might develop into.
I loved all the dynamics in These Violent Delights – not only between Roma and Juliette – but also the smaller interactions we saw through Kathleen and Rosalind, as well as the mystery spy, who was secretly betraying their gang. I loved seeing how much Roma cared for Alisa, and how protective he was of her. However, my absolute favourite relationship was between Benedikt and Marshall! Their contrasting personalities, as well as all the banter, have made them my new OTP. Like Roma said, I honestly wasn’t sure if at the next moment, they would kill each other, or kiss each other, which is what made them my favourite (aside from the fact that they were both also cinnamon rolls lol).
Moving on to the main romantic subplot between Roma and Juliette – I love how the flashbacks were incorporated into the storyline, and how we got to see both points of view for each of the incidents taking place. It not only helped me understand the whole picture, but also really gave me a new perspective, and insight into both of their characters. Their progression from loving each other, to wanting to kill each other was gradual, and never felt rushed, or forced at any time (PLUS THE ANGST!! AND THE YEARNING!! OMG 😭😩).
Not only the tension between the characters, but also the political tension, helped make everything more three dimensional, and transported me back to Shanghai, in all it’s glittering glory.
These days Juliette,” he said, low and warily, “the most dangerous people are the powerful white men who feel as if they have been slighted.
When I started reading These Violent Delights, the first thing that struck me was the worldbuilding. We enter Shanghai gradually, but after a few pages, the immersive, and atmospheric setting had me captivated and fully invested in the story. We not only get to see the visual setting, but also the political social and economic setting of 1920’s Shanghai, which helped make everything more real. Along with seeing the blood feud between the Scarlet Gang, and the White Flowers develop, as well as the true meaning of the word loyal, we also get an insight into the internal gang hierarchies, and how colonialism had a huge impact on the setting and its growth.
In the book, Juliette’s father (and the leader of the Scarlet Gang) constantly mentions that it’s important to make sure the Westerners are always content. I feel like we have a lot of stories talking about colonialism through the coloniser’s perspectives, so it was refreshing to see a new take and understand everyone’s POVs. The change the colonisers had on the city was shown gradually, which meant I could see exactly how they had an impact on Shanghai and its residents. Along with the monster being a threat to the people in the city, so was Western imperialism, and I love how it was incorporated into the story as a second problem. Even though it wasn’t as visible, colonialism, and the Westerners slowly taking over the city was as much of a problem as the literal monster in the river.
“You’re fluent in Russian and that’s the best you could come up with?” Roma asked, flabbergasted. “What is a Montague? It sounds Italian.”
“There are Italian Communists!”
“Not in Shanghai!”
Seeing the citizens of Shanghai realize how much control the Westerners had over their home, and seeing them feeling so helpless about it was genuinely so heartbreaking because their city was being taken away from them right in front of their eyes, by people who had no right to. I think a major theme of These Violent Delights was also Western Imperialism, and how it doesn’t go away, no matter how much you want it to, as well as the larger impact it has, which developed the story further and made it all the more interesting. But it was really Chloe Gong’s illustrative writing that finally brought the story to life.
In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens.
Novels that are just an ‘aesthetic’ tend to just make me feel tired with their over-descriptive writing, but the gorgeous prose in These Violent Delights just heightened all my senses and took me back to 1920s Shanghai. I never felt sick of all the descriptive language, because it all just worked towards enhancing the storytelling and plot.
Because of the beautiful, descriptive prose, as well as the nuanced storytelling, I actually felt like I was in those dark alleys with Juliette, scaling the walls with Alisa, or even exploring the Huangpu River with Roma, Benedikt, and Marshall. The dark, daring third-person narrative had me hooked from page 1, and I was captivated by the illustrative and intense tone in the novel, that had me on the edge of my seat throughout, tense with anticipation for the character’s fates.
Too many kind hearts turn cold every day.
A Romeo and Juliet retelling that defies all expectations, These Violent Delights is a dazzling debut that has stolen both my heart and all my tears. Filled with many complex layers of enemies-to-lovers perfection, and the intricacies of gangs in 1920s Shanghai, it’s a stunning historical fiction novel, that also manages to tackle important themes in history such as Colonialism and Western Imperialism.
A rich and complex storyline, further enhanced with nuanced, descriptive storytelling, These Violent Delights heightened all my senses and took me back to Shanghai in all its glory.
The stars incline us, they do not bind us.
Along with the atmospheric, descriptive relationships, Gong also masterfully crafts characters you empathize with, as well as relationships you root for. Layered, and well-developed characters are my favourite to read about because there’s always so much more complexity, and in These Violent Delights, the balance between complex, relatable, and realistic is beautifully managed, making it a stunning experience not only for me – but thousands of others as well.