These Violent Delights
Chloe Gong

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

Behold: the book that finally made me cave and create a brand new romance category for this blog. I never thought I’d say any of those words in that order, much less read enough romance (or romance-ish, let’s be clear) books to even have a romance category. Having said that, I do have to admit that my criteria for this category are a little arbitrary, but even with my very unclear definition of romance, it now turns out that I’ve choked down a lot more of it than I’ve ever really realized. And I have to admit that it’s not all bad: my tolerance has grown with prolonged exposure, given that romance tends to be an inevitable part of most books, to the point that I can now wholeheartedly say that I actually really enjoyed These Violent Delights in spite of the teenaged angst.

The year is 1926 in not-so-fair Shanghai, where we lay our scene. At this point in time and actual history, Shanghai is not really a city so much as a brutal mosh pit packed with both Chinese and foreigners and supervised by gangsters. There is almost a literal myriad of competing forces fighting for power, but Shanghai’s politics are largely structured around the Chinese Scarlet Gang and the Russian White Flowers, who have divided the city more or less evenly between them. In the middle of this methodical madness are Junli “Juliette” Cai (pronounced “Tsai”) and Roma Montagov, the heirs of their respective gangs. They had a secret childhood friendship that bloomed into a secret childhood romance when they were about fourteen and fifteen, respectively, but their budding relationship was violently shut down by their parents. The Montagovs struck the first blow when they planted a bomb in the Cais’ estate; the Cais retaliated by assassinating Roma’s mother. Now four years older, Roma and Juliette are seasoned killers as well as deeply traumatized teenagers, known citywide for their stone-cold savagery. Only one of them actually deserves this reputation, but more on that in a minute.

Though they’d die before they admit it, Roma and Juliette have more in common than they realize. Both have lost their footing in their fathers’ gangs despite their status as the official heirs, and both are in danger of being supplanted by ambitious rivals. Distrusted by his father after his affair with Juliette, Roma has been unofficially demoted to a glorified errand boy, while his more important duties are carried out by Dimitri Voronin, his father’s thuggish right-hand goon. His only friends are his cousin, Benedikt Montagov, and Marshall Seo, a Korean kid who was more or less adopted by the White Flowers. Juliette was predominantly educated in the States and is now struggling to find her place as an American girl in Shanghai, challenged at every turn by her asshole cousin Tyler. (I have a pertinent question: when is Tyler going to die?) She is supported by the two other cousins who seem to be closest to her in age, Rosalind and Kathleen Lang, but their status in the gang is more dubious because they are not technically part of the Cai clan.

With the two gangs currently at an uneasy stalemate, Juliette’s duties upon her return to Shanghai mostly consist of collecting late rent from the Scarlet Gang’s multitude of tenants and dealing with potential small-time clients, such as Walter and Paul Dexter, a father/son duo who hope to hit it big with a new drug called lernicrom. Juliette dismisses the product, but the Dexters are both obtuse and persistent, in addition to which Paul develops a completely unrequited crush on Juliette and begins to pursue her relentlessly. All of this is almost cute compared to the larger conflict, which is the unidentifiable monster that seems to have taken up residence in the Huangpu River. This might have been okay if the monster were not in the habit of spraying bugs all over the nearest humans at fairly regular intervals, and even that might have been sort of all right if the bugs were, like, ladybugs or something. Unfortunately the bugs happen to be burrowing parasites of the kind that force their hosts to tear their own throats out, and, once unleashed, they spread like wildfire. What starts as a gruesome tragedy spins out of control in the blink of an eye, and Shanghai finds itself with a sweeping plague on its hands almost overnight.

This is especially bad news for the Cais and the Montagovs, whose gangsters seem to make up the bulk of the casualties. As their ranks thin, their grip on the city is challenged by outside forces, including the foreign governments who seek to exploit Chinese resources for their own ends; the growing Communist party, whose leaders convince increasingly large numbers of factory workers that communism is a better long-term solution than paying fealty to gangsters; and the Kuomintang, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. In the background, a shadowy figure called the Larkspur quietly sows further division by marketing a miracle vaccine, which he sells primarily to desperate workers who can’t afford it. Meanwhile, the tension between the two gangs continues to increase, threatening to boil over into outright war despite one insincere attempt to unite against the plague. When their fathers refuse to join forces for the good of the city, Roma and Juliette reluctantly agree to solve the mystery of the monster together, propelled into a prickly truce by the unexpected infection of Roma’s sister Alisa. Alisa survives, but she has to be kept in a medically induced coma to prevent her from tearing her own throat out.

After a prolonged investigation, Roma and Juliette learn that the monster has been living in an apartment inhabited by Communist Secretary-General Zhang Gutai and his assistant Qi Ren. Juliette becomes convinced that Gutai is the monster, and she executes him without a trial during a citywide worker riot. To her horror, Gutai turns out to be completely innocent, as the infections continue after his death. Realizing that Qi Ren has been the monster all along, Juliette returns to Gutai’s apartment with Roma in tow, only to find the place completely flooded and Qi Ren gone. She also finds Paul Dexter, who does his clueless Britisher bit for a couple of minutes before revealing himself as the Larkspur, the mastermind behind both the vaccine and the plague. Seeing that his father was having no success peddling lernicrom, Paul took matters into his own hands and engineered the plague by infecting Qi Ren, whom he believed to be Zhang Gutai. The only problem is that he now has no control over his own handiwork: he hadn’t intended for Qi Ren to turn into a monster, and he certainly hadn’t realized the full effect of his actions. Regardless, he’s made a fortune off the vaccine, so everything seems to be rolling his way. After vaccinating Juliette without her consent – I mean, she’s never liked him and she’s pretty mad at him, but he’s always been sweet on her – he unleashes an upgraded Qi Ren upon the unsuspecting city, then escapes Gutai’s apartment before Juliette can shoot him.

With Qi Ren on the loose and the clock ticking down, Roma and Juliette rush to the docks of the Huangpu, where they engage in a final, desperate battle with both Paul and Qi Ren. Things look dicey when Roma is infected during the fight, but Juliette manages to kill Paul before finally shooting Qi Ren when he resumes his human form. As Qi Ren gratefully dies (everyone asks where the monster is, but no one ever asks how the monster is), Juliette also dispatches the mother insect who infected Qi Ren in the first place, saving Roma’s life and ending the plague, though its body later disappears. Of course, this is not the end of their troubles, because the annoying idiot better known as Tyler tries to assert himself as the true heir of the Scarlets. Juliette foils his plans and reasserts her own dominance, but in so doing is forced to shoot Marshall in front of Roma and Benedikt. After driving away both Scarlets and White Flowers before they can get caught by the angry factory workers (the city is, after all, still in the grip of a violent riot), she secretly takes Marshall to a Scarlet safe house, warning him that he cannot reveal his survival to the White Flowers until Tyler is no longer a threat. Finally, just when everything seems like it might be settling down, Juliette receives a copy of an ominous letter written in Paul’s hand: “In the event of my death, release them all.”

One supremely stupid little tidbit: the name Roma makes me giggle, (1) because it sounds like a tomato and (2) because the first thing that comes to mind is that line from Phantom of the Opera, where the harried conductor is trying to tell Piangi “We say ‘Rome,’ not ‘Roma’!” – no? Just me? Fine. Anyway, as usual I could’ve done without the stupid romance, but, well, it would be odd if a Romeo & Juliet retelling did not, in fact, include a romance, so I’m not particularly put out. I knew what I was getting into, and I liked this book a damn sight more than I would ever have believed before I read it. (Why did I buy it, you might ask? Good question. I have no idea.) I’m on the fence about Roma, who became more personable as the book went on but is still somewhat lacking in the personality department, but Juliette is a hurricane in a sparkly dress, and I love her. I love her humor and her action-oriented approach to every situation, her ruthlessness, her softness, her determination, her love for her family and her people, even her habit of burning bridges before finding out that they might be useful. Look, I would’ve told the Dexters to kiss off too. I’m not sorry Paul is dead. Frankly, I think Juliette should’ve shot him a lot sooner. I love that Juliette is all action and no talk, while Roma is mostly talk and a little bit of action. I actually don’t mind that he doesn’t really deserve his reputation as a brutal murderer. I find their dynamic oddly refreshing, at least in this one particular instance.

I have found that first-time authors (and more experienced authors) can sometimes neglect the bulk of their cast in favor of the main characters, but I am happy to report that this is not the case with this book. Even if I’m lukewarm about Roma, I love his friends. I really really really need Benedikt to pair off with Marshall in the next book, because oh my god are those two ever in love. I’ll admit that my feelings towards Rosalind are less enthusiastic, chiefly because she’s not quite as prominent; but on the other hand, I love Kathleen and would like to see her continue to grow. I hope she gets to start calling herself Celia, her chosen name: her transphobic father passed her off as her deceased sister Kathleen to keep people from learning her true identity, claiming he was concerned for her safety. Even if she’s gotten used to calling herself Kathleen, it still isn’t right. (Unless she now likes being Kathleen, in which case I withdraw my objection.) More than the characters and the setting, though, I love a literary treasure hunt, and Gong delivers in spades. From the subtler touches – the club named Mantua, the parallels between the characters’ names – to the unspeakably delightful scene in which Roma complains that “Montague” sounds too Italian to be a convincing alias, this book is packed with the kind of nerdy details that make my heart so happy, even as someone who actually hates Romeo & Juliet. I fully believe that Gong is a Shakespeare stan, because I don’t know what else she could possibly be.

Now. I am choosing to extend some grace here, because this was Gong’s first published book, and it shows in the prose. I’m hoping this is something that improves over the next several books, because Gong’s writing mostly struck me as clumsy. While I love her mischievous and frequently absurd sense of humor, the overall effect of the book is diluted by her awkwardness with the language. This is not deal-breaking – I would read this book again, probably with less irritation now that I know what to expect – but it is somewhat distracting. Again, this is largely a first-time author issue, and, as is the case with most of the books I complain about, I notice these things because they remind me of my own first attempts at writing. Awkward prose hits a lot differently when it’s more of a mirror than you were expecting. I also wish Gong had nixed the French dialogue, which seemed even clumsier than the English. Admittedly, my French is so rusty and I’ve never been fluent, so it’s entirely possible Gong knows more than I do. Of course, it’s equally possible she just plugged her dialogue into Google Translate, which would explain why it looks about as natural as the Spanish dialogue in Midnight Sun (Stephenie Meyer). I can’t tell either way.

My only other issue is that the biggest plot twists seem fairly obvious because Qi Ren tipped my monster-detector from the moment he appeared, in the same way I knew that one of the Dexters had to be the Larkspur. But on the other hand, can I really fault Juliette for latching onto Zhang Gutai when she has no natural reason to think that solution is too easy? No. Yet even if the solution had been less painfully transparent, I’m still not entirely satisfied with the ending. I am glad Marshall survives, but his last-minute agreement with Juliette seems just a little too contrived, especially given the choreography that was required for his resurrection to take place at all. I’m also not clear on Juliette’s reasons for keeping him hidden from his own gang, even if she says she’s doing it to keep Tyler from hurting more people in his quest to get to the not-at-all-dead Marshall. Surely the White Flowers have a secure location of their own, you know, a better one than the one where Roma’s mother died. Surely Roma and Benedikt can be trusted to keep their own comrade safe for a few months while Juliette neutralizes Tyler. Surely they could make him wear a wig when they transport him from one safe house to another. I acknowledge that this is a drama and it is going to be dramatic for the sake of being dramatic, but this seems so unnecessary.

Earlier in the book, I thought Gong was a little too reluctant to pull the trigger on these characters, who are so different from Shakespeare’s. I kept waiting for a showdown between Tyler and Marshall, and it never happened, though Marshall did curse both houses after getting shot by Juliette. I have a feeling that might be it as far as the Tyler/Marshall fight goes; but on the other hand, it might not be. There is so much left to do in this story, and it seems pretty clear that Tyler and Marshall are going to meet again, though in what context I don’t yet know. I really do hope Tyler dies at some point, and maybe Walter Dexter if he makes a nuisance of himself again. The rest of the characters can stay, especially Juliette. Or maybe only Juliette. I love her ferociously, and I am so glad I get another 521 pages of her. I’m not ready to say goodbye to her yet, which is why I am currently wondering how I’ll do with Foul Lady Fortune. This is, of course, entirely dependent upon how well I get along with Our Violent Ends, and I should note that I have no idea if Juliette will survive the next book. Still, this was a decent first installment in a very absorbing world, and it’s got me coming back for more.