The year is 1926 and Shanghai is fractured. Two warring factions – the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers – scramble to claim the little of the city not taken by the British and the French, competing against foreigners and Chinese Nationalists and Communists.
Right in the thick of this clamour for power lie Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, heirs to the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers respectively . . . and former lovers, torn apart by an act of betrayal. When a deadly illness hits both gangs, Juliette and Roma find themselves reluctantly working together to find the root of it, lest madness descends on both their families.
Genre: Young Adult / Historical Fiction / Fantasy
Content warnings: blood, gore, graphic depictions of violence, self-harm, murder death
Perfect for when you are in the mood for: mystery solving, dark themes and mutual pining (in the ex-lovers-but-still-in-love-with-each-other type of way)
In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens.
The madness quite literally drives the plot. Horrified as Juliette and Roma are at the sight of someone suddenly clawing their own throat out, we keenly join them on their search and watch their grudges slowly ebb away as they work through their mutual enemy’s twists, all while attempting to hide their alliance from their feuding families. However, while we enjoy the mystery and danger, where the premise falls short is the medical fallacy in how the virus manifests, burying itself within the victim’s brain and then some – leaving us scratching our heads at the logistics of it all.
The story reads like a rollercoaster – embarking on a steady incline as Juliette and Roma gradually put the pieces together . . . before going full thrust and throwing us down several loops the further along we read. Chapters of drama and action are well mixed in with the more leisurely chapters of sleuthing and character bonding, which explore the surprisingly mundane and humorous interactions that come with being a part of an interconnected community (even one as above the law and murderous as the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers). Even so, the various ups and downs can, at times, feel rushed or stalled, especially with how frequently the fast- and slow-paced moments alternate.
While the novel draws us in through its high stakes and dark themes, the heart of the story lies in how appearances are not all that they seem, as reflected in the dualities of both the setting and the characters. Just like Shanghai is a beautiful mess – fractured yet adaptive in its experiences with European occupation – Juliette and Roma are, too, strengthened and marred by their upbringing as gang heirs and the wounds of their previous love affair. Throughout the course of the story the two main leads, within the setting of the ever-changing Shanghai, are presented with obstacles which force them to re-evaluate or contradict their needs and values, reminding us how the world is sometimes more complex and nuanced than we think.
Chloe Gong writes exceptionally well. Her sentences are descriptive without being superfluous and any scene regarding Shanghai’s landscape paints a vivid image – each different from the other – reflecting both the squalor and beauty of the city. Even with the confusing way the virus works, the description of its effects immediately instills dread in the reader and is bound to make you shudder the further you look into it.
Another strength in Chloe Gong’s writing is her dialogue, which carries a wonderfully dramatic flair, especially pertaining to passionate characters such as Juliette, or Roma’s witty best friend Marshall Seo, who is exceptionally quippy. This magic also extends to hammy antagonists like Tyler Cai and Paul Dexter, who are so perfectly entitled in the way they carry themselves that you want to punch them while simultaneously congratulating the author for making them get under your skin. All in all, if nothing else works, the way Chloe Gong puts words to page will urge you to read the novel until the end.
The characters of the novel – both main and supporting – are colourful and distinct. Juliette makes for a delightful protagonist to follow, her boldness pushing her through boundaries set by both her duties and society, even if it might land her in hot water. By contrast, Roma, Juliette’s counterpart and unlikely partner-in-crime, is there to hold her back but is alike when it comes to protecting loved ones and putting their safety above all else. Juliette and Roma’s respective entourages also contain some fun personalities, and there are amusing shenanigans to be had watching the polar-opposite Lang twins, Rosalind and Kathleen, team up to tease Juliette or seeing Roma get fondly exasperated over Benedikt (his cousin) and Marshall’s quarrelsome-yet-loving-relationship. Admittedly, these characters don’t get as much backstory as we’d like, but it’s to be sure that there’s never a dull moment with them.
While not extensively diverse, the characters within the novel are reflective of 1920s Shanghai (an oft seldom explored time period for historical fiction), presenting a collective of both eastern and western backgrounds. The core supporting cast also contains LGBT+ representation through Kathleen, a trans woman, and Marshall, who shows interest in men and is definitely interested in Benedikt (who also seems to reciprocate those feelings). Overall, none of the characters feel out of place, and identity-related struggles (which many readers with diverse backgrounds can relate to) are also touched upon throughout the story.
The story is not perfect by any means, but it has a gripping conflict and dynamic cast to follow around. If you enjoy a dark mystery adventure with some guns and a sprinkle of romance, then I recommend checking These Violent Delights out.