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Chloe Gong’s young adult fantasy debut “These Violent Delights,” already a New York Times Bestseller, is well-deserving of the tidal waves of praise it has received since its release. A “Romeo and Juliet” retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, “These Violent Delights” follows sometime star-crossed lovers, sometime mortal enemies Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, the heirs of two rival gangs in an ever-changing city. Roma and Juliette, along with a brilliant ensemble of supporting characters, are forced to work together to hunt down a monster that has begun to terrorize their city before everyone they love falls victim to the monster’s viral madness.
Gong masterfully balances gorgeous prose with an engaging, fast-paced plot. The descriptions of the settings and aesthetics of the novel are beautifully written, giving readers vivid and compelling imagery of the glitz and gore of gang-run Shanghai and perfectly accentuating the story. Thankfully, these detailed depictions also never come at the sacrifice of the pacing of the novel. Each plot point is given equal care and is delivered with a powerful punch, well underscored by the encapsulating nature of Gong’s writing.
This equilibrium is aided by the high stakes built up over the course of the entire novel. The central conflict of “These Violent Delights'' is quite literally a life-or-death matter for Roma and Juliette. Trying to uncover the mystery of the monster to save their city and protect their loved ones would be gripping enough, but this tension is deepened by the all-encompassing nature of their families’ blood feud. Emotions understandably run high throughout the novel, and these emotions — whether they play out through violence, verbal outburst, or internalization — are given the utmost respect and validity, enrapturing the audience in the rollercoaster narrative arcs through which Gong sends her characters. All of this conflict, combined with incisive and nuanced commentary on colonialism, identity, and privilege, makes for a tale of epic proportions that leaps off the page.
“These Violent Delights” is a wholly original retelling of Shakespeare’s most infamous tale of young love. Gong takes elements from “Romeo and Juliet” and transforms them into something wholly her own. The premise of ill-fated lovers, separated by family loyalties, is prominently there, but many of the finer details and moments are cleverly reworked within the historical fantasy context. The classic touchstones of the tragic love story are excellently defamiliarized, so that many of the moments that come from Shakespeare’s text are covert and a joy to uncover. Because of the discretion with which the retold aspects of “These Violent Delights” are brought in and reimagined, the story remains delightfully unpredictable.
The inevitable elegance of a classic Shakespeare romance is bolstered by the point of view used throughout the story; “these Violent Delights” is told from an omniscient third-person point of view. Not only does this give the audience a layered understanding of each main character’s inner psyche, but it also allows the audience to clearly follow each of the many different narrative threads this story holds. The viewpoint is also accentuated by allusion to future scenes in the book (and the eventual series, as “These Violent Delights” left readers on a riveting cliffhanger) that built up anticipation, propelling the reader through this page-turner of a novel. By thoughtfully executing this use of a third person omniscient perspective, “These Violent Delights” manages to replicate the feeling of watching a tragedy unfold live on stage.
“These Violent Delights” is a standout literary release of 2020. Well worth the warm reception it’s received since its release, this novel spins a unique take on star-crossed love, family dynamics, and the balance between honor, duty, and desire.
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