‘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.’
These Violent Delights is a hugely enjoyable read based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, taking the components at the heart of Shakespeare’s play and transforming them into something fresh and new, while still maintaining connections with the story that inspired it. I teach Romeo and Juliet to classes every year and I never failed to smile when there was a very subtle (or even a more precise) reference to the dialogue of the play, for the writing is so elegant that it never once feels as if it is simply a new interpretation. The characters, though they may share names with or be styled after their Shakespearean counterparts, are entirely the novel’s own and are beautifully nuanced.
My favourite character has to be Juliette, who is not what one might expect from the character who shares her name in the play. This Juliette is not downtrodden or completely commanded by the men in her family, and there’s more than a slight sense that she could, if she chose, take control of the Scarlet Gang and no longer have to worry about her father’s influence. However, her life has been heavily controlled by concerns for her safety, which has left her feeling trapped between worlds and not entirely sure of her identity, at one turn resentful and at another defiant, angry for what she has lost and how she has had to adapt for the sake of others. Her world is controlled by perceived expectations and a determination not to risk looking weak, in-case her position as her father’s heir should continue to be threatened by her cousin Tyler. Though she has a good deal of freedom, her choices are ultimately not her own, governed by loyalty to her family and the set of rules by which they operate, and while there are moments where she appears viciously proud of who and what she is, there are far more where she resents what she has been made to become and despises how easily she adopts violence, guilt weighing heavy on her for a variety of reasons as she mourns her former self and all else that she has lost.
Her relationship with Roma is a difficult one, and in this instance is not the courtship akin to the play, but the long awaited aftermath of what might have happened had Romeo and Juliet been caught by their families before the events leading to their untimely deaths. This Roma and Juliette have previously been involved, before their loyalties and love were tested by the interference of families more interested in harming each other and gaining the upper hand than considering what’s best for their children (of course, they believe they truly are doing what is best). Now, she is determined not to love him, but understands that needs must and he can be useful to her investigation of the madness that driving people to take their own lives. It’s quite clear that their continued association is going to lead to more than their simply locating information, yet it isn’t a sweet and kind renewing of their affections, but a pairing full of distrust, regret and frustration, the two too embroiled in their rival gangs’ business and their own bitterness over losing how and who they used to be to make anything easy.
The madness stalking the city revolves around the appearance of a monster in the river and the appearance of insects that somehow influence people to attempt to tear out their own throats. Gong doesn’t shy away from using language that provokes a a flinch-worthy response when it comes to description of just how characters succumb to being robbed of all sense and forced to rip into their throats with no weapon but their own hands, which, combined with the idea of the insects and fleeting views of the monster, makes for a rather chilling sense of external evil that meshes well with the simmering tension between the gangs and other residents.
These Violent Delights is a fantastic read and by far the best and most convincing re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet story that I’ve ever encountered. It’s out in the UK on November 17th! Thank you to Hodderscape for sending me an ARC!