There were things I liked about this book (the fashion! the sombre realities of colonialism!) but they were largely outweighed by clunky writing that’s simultaneously too verbose and too brief. Not to malign youth, but I upon reaching the author bio and seeing that Gong is currently a student at UPenn I definitely had a moment of “ah, yes, makes sense.”
These Violent Delights is not, as I initially thought, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai. It’s obviously not not that (all the characters make an appearance, the names sometimes changed and sometimes not) but there’s a lot more to it–there’s a contagious disease that causes people to rip their own throats out (?? is this even possible?? like, can you actually do this without passing out?) which is attacking both Scarlet Gang and White Flower gangsters, and there’s tell of a sea monster viral vector. Which is to say, this story is well out of the realm of historical fiction and into the realm of historical scifi/fantasy.
And that’s a pity, because even without the creepy murder disease there’s so much to unpack in the setting. This is already a pretty long book and it definitely drags at times, which is funny because I wanted to read so much more about the encroachment of French/British/American imperial overlords and the history of the Bolshevik refugees and Juliette’s bi-cultural identity. And then I’d want to have a great, family-enemies-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-??? romance between Juliette and Roma. And then, maybe, I’d want to read about a pseudo-magic-but-called-“science” biological weapon disease and drips like Paul Wexler, both of whom are used as a stand in for ongoing Nationalist/Communist tensions? It’s a tortured metaphor for sure.
Which brings me to my next point, which is I don’t think the writing is quite strong enough to carry the story sans the deux ex monster. There’s lots of places where the old adage “show, don’t tell” could have been applied to ruthlessly cut out about half of the text. The text saved could have all gone towards exploring more of our characters’ backstories, which would help even the balance between the emotionally-driven sections and the action settings. The latter also fall victim to classic YA-being-young-adult syndrome, which I try my best not to get agitated by.
BUT, JUST BECAUSE I AM A LITTLE: First off, nothing would have changed plot-wise if Juliette and Roma’s first dalliance had been when they were 19-20, which would allow them to re-meet when they are 24-25. After all, 19- to 20-year olds are capable of idealistic thinking and the rush of young love. And mid-20s adults are super capable of thinking themselves utterly wise and jaded.
This is a duology, not a trilogy. At this point maybe I will pick up the next book but it’s unlikely. That being said, I am a completist at heart!