Our Violent Ends
Chloe Gong

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

My god.

I feel like this series can go two ways. Either you can find the premise and the general vibe ridiculous – which they are – and sneer through the next 970 pages, or you can shrug and say “fuck it” halfway through the first book, which is what I ended up doing. One of these ways is more fun than the other. I cannot pretend that the series is anything other than absurd and rather clumsily written, but it is also absorbing, emotional, surprisingly hilarious, and utterly addicting. Long story short, I am completely hooked, and I just found out I can get the Foul Lady books on Kindle Unlimited.

Following on the heels of These Violent DelightsOur Violent Ends opens at the turn of the year. 1926 is old news, as are the monster and the plague engineered by Paul Dexter, and the city is back to its old routines, blissfully and temporarily unaware that there are in fact five other monsters lying in wait. Unfortunately, things are worse than usual between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers: several months ago Scarlet heir Junli “Juliette” Cai killed Marshall Seo, right-hand man of White Flower heir Roman “Roma” Nikolaevich Montagov, after a dangerous standoff with her cousin Tai Lei “Tyler” Cai (known to me as “The Heir That Never Was”). Unbeknownst to all, Marshall is alive and currently haunting a Scarlet safe house, where Juliette keeps him supplied with food and dire warnings not to stray from the walls of the house, though he regularly breaks this rule in order to keep an eye on his BFF/long-time crush, Benedikt Ivanovich Montagov. This is a good thing, because Benedikt has been suffering from severe depression in the wake of Marshall’s apparent murder, and he hasn’t been taking particularly good care of himself.

In addition to the murderous tension between the two gangs, which has left a trail of redshirts across the city (I mean, let’s be real, nobody important is succumbing to the White Flowers’ vengeance), the insect plague evolves from a wild spree to a tightly controlled business enterprise when Dimitri Voronin – wannabe White Flowers heir and Roma’s greatest nemesis after Juliette – seduces Juliette’s cousin, Shalin “Rosalind” Lang, and persuades her to provide him with detailed information from the Scarlet Gang’s inner circle. Using the threat of the monsters, he spends several months blackmailing the Scarlet Gang, but later begins to blackmail the White Flowers as well. Lord Montagov dismisses the first blackmail letter as a meaningless threat, but is forced to begin regular payments when one of Dimitri’s monsters decimates a Flowers-owned club. With no one else to turn to, Lord Montagov arranges a meeting with Lord Cai, at which he proposes that their respective heirs work together to catch the blackmailer and end the plague. Having spent the better part of the current year trying to kill each other, Roma and Juliette now find themselves partnering once again for the good of their city.

As with their first monster hunt, nothing is what it seems, and the trail leads them all over the place, from the depths of Shanghai to the tranquil country town of Zhouzhuang. This time, however, Tyler has become more aggressive in his campaign to replace Juliette as the uncontested Scarlet heir, while Juliette’s relationship with Rosalind – formerly one of her right-hand women, along with her sister Kathleen – has become strained. Their mission is made more difficult by the growing violence in the city as the gangs fight a losing battle to retain their decades-long control of Shanghai; and, of course, there is the ever-present possibility that their latent feelings for each other will be discovered and violently punished by their respective families. With enemies on all sides and the walls closing in, Juliette finally snaps when Tyler kidnaps Alisa Montagova in order to force Roma into a duel. Though he orders her to act as his second, she turns on him mid-duel and shoots him before he can kill Roma. As he lies dying, she finally confesses – out loud, and to a considerable audience – that she loves Roma, and always has. The one bright side is that Roma finally reunites with Marshall, who reveals his continued existence while freely admitting that he would have shot Tyler if Juliette hadn’t.

Tyler’s death initially blends into the background of a well-timed Communist uprising, but the consequences become increasingly clear as Lord Cai begins to exclude Juliette from meetings that she – as his heir – should rightfully attend. This widens the gap between Juliette and everyday Scarlets, but it also keeps her ignorant of the Scarlet Gang’s relationship with the Nationalists, with whom Lord Cai has a tenuous alliance. Meanwhile, Marshall is unexpectedly reclaimed by his estranged father, Nationalist general Shu Yang, and he reluctantly agrees to act his part as Shu’s heir in exchange for the safety of his friends, who are under direct threat from the Kuomintang. The simmering pot finally explodes when Juliette and Kathleen intercept a message intended for Lord Cai, instructing the Scarlet Gang to take to the streets to help the Nationalists purge the city of Communists – including the total eradication of the White Flowers. Realizing that Shanghai can offer her nothing more than one continuous cycle of violence, Juliette announces her own death, then intercepts Roma before he can embark upon a suicide vengeance mission and persuades him, Alisa, and Benedikt to run away with her. While they plot their escape, Kathleen goes to the Communists, having come to sympathize with their cause while spying on them at Juliette’s behest. With her final link to the Scarlet Gang completely severed, she reclaims her original name, Celia, and rallies her friends for the coming battle.

Unfortunately, the best-laid plans have a way of going awry, and Juliette, Roma, and Alisa are caught on the banks of the Huangpu River before they can escape. Roma and Alisa are apprehended by Dimitri’s men; Juliette is taken back to her father’s house, though not before she accidentally witnesses the bloody massacre of an unarmed Communist march. Her own suicide attempt is thwarted just in time by Benedikt, who managed to evade capture by springing Marshall from General Shu’s house but then promptly lost him again when he was rounded up by Dimitri’s men. With Roma, Alisa, and Marshall now in Dimitri’s custody and facing public execution, Benedikt and Juliette return to their only source of information – Rosalind – and learn that Dimitri’s monsters can be forced to reveal themselves if doused with ethanol. Having given them all the information she can, Rosalind goes to Celia, finding her injured but alive among the Communists slaughtered in the Nationalists’ massacre, while Benedikt and Juliette hatch a wild rescue plan that starts with a stolen fire truck filled with gallons of gasoline and ends with Roma and Juliette facing down insects, monsters, and Dimitri, who in my opinion qualifies as both. As Dimitri and his monsters close in, Roma and Juliette set fire to the gasoline-soaked streets, and go up in flames.

One year later, Alisa visits Zhouzhuang during Qingming to pay her respects to the departed souls of Roma and Juliette. In the year since their deaths, Alisa has been very busy. She forged their marriage certificate and sent it to the press, effectively ending the blood feud, and then went on to become a Communist spy, refusing Benedikt’s and Marshall’s offer to take her with them when they fled to Moscow. The Scarlet Gang is completely gone, the White Flowers broken beyond repair; Lord Cai has joined the Kuomintang, Lord Montagov’s location is unknown. Celia is still a loyal Communist and the only Communist who actually cares for Alisa and puts up with her crazier antics, such as her request to be driven to Zhouzhuang, but Rosalind now works for the Nationalists’ top command and is presumably estranged from Celia. And Alisa remains one of the few who knew and geuninely mourns Roma and Juliette, despite the masses who now worship them for their sacrifice. At last, with her offerings laid and nothing more to do in town, Alisa thinks she catches a glimpse of her lost brother and sister-in-law in a boat on one of Zhouzhuang’s canals, but they are gone in the next moment. Despite her grief, she tells them that she and everyone else will be okay, then goes back to Celia and returns to Shanghai.

Tyler dead: Check.

Juliette being a hilarious badass: Check.

Celia stepping into a larger role and reclaiming her chosen name: Check.

Benedikt and Marshall finally hooking up: Check.

Nerdy Shakespeare references: Check.

I am satisfied. Additional bonus: I did like Roma better this go-round, though if I got dropped into 1920s Shanghai I would want Marshall as my bestie omg I love him I’m so happy he and Benedikt survived and fINALLY REALIZED THEY LOVE EACH OTHER SQUEEEEEEEEE.

I stand by my thesis: this is a ridiculous book in an extraordinarily ridiculous series. Do I care? No. My disbelief got tossed out the window a long time ago, along with anything resembling human dignity. For instance, I could point out that instant inoculation is not a thing, and realistically those plague vaccines probably should’ve taken a couple weeks to kick in. I could choose to notice that Juliette’s decision to keep Marshall hidden for as long as she did arguably led to more deaths than it would have if she’d just shoved him into Benedikt’s arms and run, and I could make a stink about the insanity of parasitic insects that instantly kill their host, I mean, that seems like a wasteful way to evolve. I don’t want to say such parasites don’t exist, not having done any research beyond a very basic Google query (“parasites that instantly kill host”), but I’m struggling to follow the buggies’ life cycle and general functioning when the death of one host apparently leads to the need to find another. I could also complain about the untranslated dialogue, because the offhand Chinese really tripped me up. I like to have snatches of foreign dialogue, but inline translation would have been nice.

Anyway, I could say all that but it wouldn’t matter, because the fact is that I don’t give a rat’s ass. These books are so fun. I like the setting and the general premise of the world Gong has created. I love the monster angle, I love the characters. Juliette is My Favorite, I will not be taking feedback on this. I really appreciate that, as violent and erratic as she is, she isn’t actually a bad person. She gives Tyler every chance – too many, in my opinion, but he is her cousin – before she finally kills him. She tries to convince her father to distribute the Scarlets’ plague vaccine to every person in the city, regardless of political affiliation, completely for free. She takes a knife for Alisa, and she offers her own back for a flogging when Rosalind is caught spying for the White Flowers. She may crave violence, but she is wonderful in other ways. I also love Celia’s growth as she begins to find a place for herself, and I love scrappy little Alisa Montagova. As with the last book, I still don’t love Rosalind, but I understand her better, and I do feel for her. I will be interested to see how she develops in Foul Lady Fortune.

With all that said, I still don’t love Tyler. In the last book, I would have said I wasn’t supposed to. With this one I’m not so sure. I hate everything about him, but it also seems like Gong was trying to make him a shade more sympathetic, or at least slightly less one-dimensional. I can’t say she was successful on either count. And I realize he is a more fleshed-out Tybalt, so he’s supposed to be impulsive and violence-oriented, but his quest to oust Juliette grates on me, especially as she doesn’t do much about him. I hate the way he casually orders her to act as his second in his harebrained duel with Roma. I hate it even more that she just goes along with it, though in her defense this might just be because she wants to be on the scene to supervise the duel or neutralize Tyler before he goes too far, or both. This is one case where I was screaming and screaming for her to do something, but Juliette – who normally acts before thinking – is all bark and no bite when it comes to Tyler, and I’m not sure why. He spends so much time pushing her around and being the biggest Alpha Boi that I would’ve thought she’d have no problem shooting him in the face and telling her father he tripped onto his own gun.

As for the ending: I actually liked it. I would like to congratulate Gong for actually killing off her protagonists, I didn’t think she’d really do it – and I’ve just learned that they survived, because I made the mistake of reading the synopsis for Last Violent Call. This is what I meant when I said Gong is too reluctant to pull the trigger on her characters, because what the fuck. I don’t want Roma and Juliette to be dead, but I’m getting whiplash from Gong’s “Gotcha!” moments. If I mildly expected them to survive their own explosion, owing to the lack of bodies, I really was so hoping I was wrong. While I do realize that wildly contrived last-minute saves are kind of Gong’s thing, this is too much for me. I’m still going to read that book, but I don’t think it’ll convince me that their escape was anything other than deeply convenient. To me this says Gong fell in love with her characters, and she couldn’t truly kill them. Or maybe she really does just love jerking her audience around, which I don’t particularly appreciate. Either way, I’m kind of annoyed, glad as I will be to see Juliette again.

I don’t know that I can really hold any of this against Gong as an author when Our Violent Ends is only her second published book. As much as I like her, it really does show. Yet somehow I liked the writing in this book better than I did in the last one, though I can’t really articulate why, and I do believe she will only get better from here on out. I’m looking forward to starting the Flesh and False Gods series; I’m curious to see if my issues with these books are a universal Gong thing, or if they’re specific to the Secret Shanghai books. I don’t expect it will matter one way or another. Gong’s wild stories have captured my attention, and I am fully along for the ride.