Rating: ⭐⭐ (2.5)
Release Date: 17 November 2020
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong blends mystery and fantasy with a new, anglicized take on the Jazz Age. Taking Romeo and Juliet to new places, literally, Gong personifies 1920s Shanghai through the viewpoint of ex-lovers and rival gang members, Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai.
Back in Shanghai after an attack on The Scarlet Gang forced Juliette to seek safety in America, the Scarlet Princess is more merciless than ever. Forged by a betrayal that forced her from the life she was born into, Juliette returns to Shanghai, eager to prove her place as the rightful heir to the Scarlet Gang. But when the people of Shanghai begin tearing their own throats out with no explanation, rival political powers begin to take advantage of the gangs' inability to save the people, hoping to fracture the hold that the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have over the suffering city of Shanghai.
With enemies on every side and no clue to what's killing her people, Juliette's search for answers brings her face to face with Roma Montagov, the boy-turned-man who sold her out four years before and the heir to the White Flowers whom she's supposed to hate. With the blood-feud between them and their people killing each other with every run-in on the streets, Juliette struggles against the memories between them and against the familiar side of Roma that begins to emerge again, even though she convinced herself his feelings were all a ploy.
These Violent Delights gained so much traction on social media and was one of my most highly anticipated new releases of the year! The hype surrounding a Shanghai 1920s Romeo & Juliet had me from the start. Then throw in rival gangs? Talk about 1996 Luhrrman Romeo & Juliet where Romeo and his boys have machine guns and Hawaiian shirts vibes.
Gong's depiction of an underground Shanghai is the best part of the YA novel. The city lives and breathes debauchery - from brothels to underground fighting to street brawls between rival gang members. The docks are such a vibrant image in These Violent Delights, and the author really did a great job setting the scene for her gang and political rivalries.
The downside here is that there's nothing that really sticks out as Shanghai. It could be any seedy neighborhood in any seedy town. There aren't any tie-ins to a specific culture. Even the names are anglicized version of Shakespeare's canon. Tybalt becomes Tyler for example. I can't imagine there's a Tyler in 1920s, whether Chinese or Russian (as Roma is supposed to be).
One of the plusses of the novel is Gong's characterization of her main male character, Roma Montagov. The "Romeo" of the story, Roma is the son and heir to the White Flowers, a gang comprised mostly of Russians who fled the Bolsheviks just a few years before. Ending up in China, they staked their hold in Shanghai, taking half the city. Even though he's the gang leader's only son, Roma is no longer favored as the heir, so, like Juliette, he's determined to restore his position in the gang and save his people from whatever is making them tear their own throats out.
With political rivals looming over the White Flowers and the Scarlet Gang both, the two come together to restore their power in the city. Roma's characterization really shines when the two of them are together. Despite being seen as this heartless killer, he's human too. He isn't one-dimensional. However, I did feel that he was sometimes too soft; it just wasn't entirely realistic for him to both want to inherent the gang and also be entirely opposed to what happens in the gang.
As for the politics in the novel, it doesn't seem clear or realistic. The closest thing we get to realism and culture of the period is the saying "the Paris of the East, the New York of the West." I wish she would've found a way to infuse her underbelly politics with some semblance of what it was really like. It makes me think of the Peaky Blinders and how successfully a fictional family was portrayed within the confines of a time period and society.
Plot-wise, I found it decently compelling. It was fairly fast-paced, with POV switching back and forth from Roma, Juliette, and their respective sidekicks. We got to see how each gang operated differently from the other. Each side kept trying to piece the mystery of the murders together.
One downside of this is that readers are able to figure it out before the characters. One frustration I had is that, maybe 2/3rds of the way in, one of the MCs has this "huge" revelation that helps them connect all the dots. However, I'd just assumed that "revelation" was already true from practically the beginning. I was operating that, since it seemed like common sense, the characters already figured that point out. So
I was disappointed when they made the connection and it came across as some big deal, because I wanted to figure out something new, not have them rejoice in putting together a (seemingly) obvious conclusion (that was given to the readers many times before).
With this novel being young adult, it was a lot lighter than I expected. While there was implied debauchery and scenes with minor blood, the book just wasn't as macabre as I longed for. It was marketed as a dark YA romance, but it was anything but.
Juliette comes back from America as this "hardened" gang heiress, but her reputation is based off rumors she started and not anything she actually did. The same is true of Roma, who is apparently unchanged from his 15-year-old self. I wanted danger, darkness, and real anti-heroes. Instead we got good guys born into sketchy roles. It just didn't go nearly far enough in my opinion. YA has room for so much more. Even just changing the tone of the writing would've done wonders for making it feel more atmospheric and dangerous.
Similarly, Juliette is set up as someone who supposedly revels in the blood and gore of her position, while Roma wants to reform his gang. While Juliette apparently became that way after being sent away from China for her own protection, she often gets frustrated with Roma's pleas for compassion. Between the two of them, I wanted a more mature, fleshed-out romance; a romance and build-up that made them grow back together, not pick up where they left off. I felt like even though they were apart for years, they simply loved each other still because they felt that neither had changed from the 14/15 year old "boy/girl [they] knew."
I found this flawed. It gave Gong an excuse to not actually write a romance. She didn't have to build anything up. She just said, "well they were childhood sweethearts and they're exactly the same so they still love each other."
It was flat. A big let down.
Their romance is instantaneous when I wanted a slow-burn, a reintroduction, a sense of "we're different now, but we still fit." It definitely wasn't the highlight of the novel by any stretch of the imagination.
Lastly, and most nitpicky, I really struggled to get into this novel in the beginning because of all the verb tense issues. I started this in the evening after work, and I was so frustrated with the author's tense issues for the first 100 pages or so. While it might not seem important to a lot of readers, and the author could seemingly justify her use of shifting tense, there were just some parts where it made no sense to switch from present to past perfect continuous, or from past to past perfect. There was one time where I thought past perfect worked when nothing else would, but for the most part, it was lazy writing. An editor should've caught the mistakes.
Image one below is a perfect example of where the tense usage messes up the meaning of what the author is trying to say. Here, Juliette is the "tough" girl, carrying around a lighter when she doesn't smoke. Using the narrator like a character (when she really should've just made this the other character's POV instead), the narrator says, "A better mystery would have been where Juliette even kept the lighter." Things like this frustrate me to no end, because it is something the narrator wonders in the book. Would have been implies it's not something that actually happens. Like, It would have been better for Roma to .... but he ..... instead.
On the top of the writing, I want to highlight that despite the tense issues, despite the watered-down romance, and despite the lack of anti-heroes, the writing, at times, is spot on. There were times where I wish I'd written some of her lines.
There is so much more I could talk about in These Violent Delights (the portrayal of Katherine, a trans character, and other implied things that I don't want to give away in this review), but I left the book wishing there was more of almost everything. Deeper, darker, grittier.
It was romance-lite, gangster-lite, and over-hyped.