This book wrecked me in the best of ways, ruthlessly violent yet like a tender lullaby. This is a book I’ve unknowingly been searching for my entire life. Chloe Gong says this book is her “love letter to Shanghai, to Shakespeare and to my younger self, who so desperately wanted to find an adventure on the shelves starring someone with a face like hers”, and I didn’t know it until I read this book, but I think all along I’ve been seeking that story too. And as the last page fluttered from my grasp, the last words screaming at me with all its fervor, I felt...serenity? And in some ways relief— utter relief to have found it in this one, to be able to see myself in a story that took my breath away, filled with elements of everything I never knew I needed so bad.
The first line starts with, “In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens”, and what ensues is a story with palpitating momentum, each scene a careful buildup to the end, leaving a trail of heart-stopping destruction in its wake. From the very first line, I felt myself transported to 1920s bustling Shanghai. I felt myself stepping inside burlesque clubs, blinded by the lights. I felt my heart beating in the dark alleyways. Glamorous, lethally dangerous, and full of intrigue, decadently captured by Chloe’s riveting writing.
The plot goes like this. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, with a long-winded history of love and hate, are heirs from rival gangs with an intense blood feud. It’s 1926, and the political climate in Shanghai is tense as their city is being torn apart by foreigners. Shortly after flapper girl Juliette returns from her studies in America, madness spreads across the city, deaths stack up, and rumors of a monster spread. The heirs of the Scarlet Gang and The White Flowers have to put aside their blood feud to save their people.
This story couldn’t have blended more seamlessly—the setting, plot, time period, and themes all meshing perfectly. A setting simultaneously nostalgic yet long left behind in vintage Shanghai, existing for such a brief yet pulsating moment in time, that it’s so incredibly easy to imagine as the grounds beneath it begin to rumble and stir, volatile and vivacious, a monster awakening beneath. The flair of the 20s, deceivingly glamorous yet beneath that something much more sinister.
Let’s gush over characters shall we! First of all, the representation and inclusivity was done so well, with trans and queer characters who never felt like token characters, with queer relationships that just felt so organic. Even though Juliette was the character we followed most, there was enough depth to each character that you knew each of these characters could have been main characters in their own right.
Each of Juliette’s relationships was nuanced, the dynamics explored so well. Especially so was her relationship with her cousin Kathleen. Beloved Kathleen <3, with her earnest desire to just be herself, her hate of violence yet unwavering loyalty to Juliette because of her understanding of Juliette’s devotion to her people. Through all the characters there is also an exploration of moral complexity, of the violence they’re expected to take on as a form of loyalty to their people, yet their undeniable and consequential struggles with it. Mars and Ben are my favorite chaotic duo and I love them to pieces!
And then there is Juliette—a character I could go endlessly on about. Ruthless, cunning, calculated, ambitious, smart, and self-aware. Fiercely protective of her people, with whip-smart reactions to every situation. She’s consistent in the way she’s not humble, but only because she knows she has power and how to wield it, but always with the greatest loyalty to her people. She was an equally astonishing yet flawed character (which I freaking love!), but one that felt so real you can’t help but root for.
The romance was only a subplot, but I loved how understated it was, that the angst had room to build. The chemistry between Juliette and Roma was palpable and tantalizing—the longing, earnest hate, angst, tension all felt. Underneath it all, there was painful tenderness and understanding, and it was almost like they reflected off one another in their unique positions as the only two people who could understand each other’s shared struggles. It’s the best sort of I-love-you-and-I-hate-that-I-do.
But I think the power in this book lies in the way Chloe unapologetically explores various themes and weaves in social commentary through thoroughly researched historical context. Context is powerful, because how can we tell a story while ignoring the history of that time? We often romanticize the 20s, but this period was undeniably one of rampant colonialization, and I think this perspective was necessary and gave the book so much substance. The YA fantasy genre is often and rightfully criticized for the way it fails to tackle social issues, but this is a YA fantasy that really embodies the social awareness that most young adults would like to see reflected in the books they read. Chloe’s voice really shines bright here.
This book, in the most brilliant of ways, served as a total takedown of colonialism and imperialism. Coupled with the current domestic political turmoil with the rise of Communism, we also see what precedes this and how it unfolds, with regions like Shanghai suffering imperialist control. Thus the very pairing of Juliette and Roma marks itself as a thought-out choice, mapping out the stark difference between the Russians who fled to Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution, who made a place for themselves, contrasted with the colonists who, as Juliette puts it, “believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land on Shanghai. Everywhere they went—entitlement.” This pairing makes sense in a historical context, as the Chinese and Russians are the ones fighting for control of the remaining parts of Shanghai, but especially so because as Chloe points out, “the geopolitical implications of a combined Chinese-Russian force is a threat to the West, so the implicit existence of this pairing combats the colonial and imperial powers that this book criticizes.”
In an interview, Chloe says her centering on colonialism was in part due to built up ancestral anger, at the disbelief of so many historical events (such as The Opium War, in which Western powers invaded China to legalize forced importation of British opium to expand colonial spheres of influence, followed by treaties and takeover of land that this book mentions) all of which left such lasting damage yet is often glossed or looked over. Her writing subtly reflects this anger, and I think when reflecting on the past, it can feel enraging to witness current-day policies and the continual cycles of injustice that continue to uphold imperial attitudes. Reading this book, I had to reconcile with my identity—the way I am shaped by the Western culture I am immersed in and have undeniably absorbed, yet also equally grappling with the understanding of the damage it has caused.
And the monster itself—what a genius way to use it as a metaphor for the cruelty and greed underneath Shanghai’s shiny, glittering exterior. The real question is revealed—who and what is the real monster?
As a child of diaspora, I connected with Juliette’s struggle with identity as well, especially this exploration of battling with the subject of West vs. East ideologies and identity, and this feeling of being stuck in-between. What is significant about Juliette’s clothing choice is that she chooses to wear beady flapper, Western dresses unlike the traditional qipao—a strategic choice by Chloe, reflecting the way people were made to feel inferior but also reflecting the way many of us still feel — as if we need to erase any part of our original culture in favor of assimilating into the majority. Juliette recounts segregation and racism she experienced in America, yet also not feeling Chinese enough in Shanghai, losing her Chinese name as others began to only know her as “Juliette”, so much so that she felt she had to keep up the image of the American girl with the flapper dress. What does it mean to feel as if you are a foreigner in your own home while actual foreigners make a home in a city that wasn’t meant to be theirs?
Eventually, Juliette gains a self-awareness that really adds to her character, because her clothing choice becomes a way for her to wield her power--she’s grappling with how she has lost so much of her identity, but on the reverse, she knows it can give her an advantage when dealing with foreigners.
Truthfully, I think I needed this book. It’s taken me years to embrace my heritage-- as a young girl I perceived my heritage and the way we are
portrayed as something shameful, inferior, and it’s hard not to feel that way when that is the narrative you see in the media. It’s hard to look back and realize that I spent so much of my childhood feeling ashamed, that it took me years to unlearn that I’m not the villain. Especially now in this moment in time, as anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Asian sentiment has exponentially risen, reflecting on the past to understand the present is crucial. Because the truth is, the roots of this are connected not only to the pandemic and rhetoric that fueled anti-Asian sentiment but also recognizing the history and existing US foreign policy/imperialism in Asia, the history of violence towards Asian Americans domestically, and the political villainization of Asians and those in proximity to. Both Western conflict in Asia and the history of Asian experiences within Western societies is often overlooked, and though this book is still fictional and limited in scope especially so as one focused on only one city, I really appreciate that it was able to cover even a sliver of it.
For Chloe to have brought her own culture and background to a story that would have had a completely different narrative if told from a Western perspective is so crucial. I think her storytelling is powerful in that it truly feels authentic, not just in the nuance to her writing from her obvious research and understanding of Chinese culture and her ability to capture little details like the way conversations are held, but also the way she holds so much agency through Juliette’s character. Chloe talks about her anger at historical events, and I could sense how freeing it was to have the agency to express it all through Juliette’s character—for example, every unapologetic reply Juliette makes to every entitled white man she encounters. But also an agency to express inner struggles, as through Juliette, who is Chinese yet American-educated, Chloe is able to explore the nature of her dual identity while critiquing colonialism.
I loved how much this book covered. Sure it served as a critique of imperialism, of racism, of misogyny, of greed, but at the heart of the story also is the theme of love and loyalty. To family, to self, to one’s city and home.
There is something special about books where you want to research the author’s intentions for specific choices, and the message and overarching themes come across so much more convincing and impactful. To me, words and books are personal, so maybe I subjectively loved this book, but I think there’s beauty in that.
This was honestly so all over the place, but I just needed somewhere to place all my unorganized, nonlinear thoughts in, so if you haven’t fallen asleep from boredom by now, thank you for listening <3. Much love to you.
Chloe Gong says this book is her love letter to Shanghai, Shakespeare, and her younger self. Well if so, then this is my (super long) love letter to the brilliance that is These Violent Delights.
Chloe Gong > Shakespear. Ok that’s all.