Stunning prose, a pulse-pounding romance, and unexpected twists upon Shakespeare’s familiar tale of youthful but doomed love make These Violent Delights a high-quality read for anyone who likes a good gangster tale with a heavy skosh of romance thrown in.
It’s Shanghai in 1926, and a war between two families – alike in dignity, but bitterly opposed – pounds on, as it has for decades. The well-entrenched Scarlet Gang and the upstart White Flowers – comprised mainly of the Chinese Cai family and the white Russian Montagov families, respectively – constantly brawl over their territory while running their complex network of gangs and outwitting the local police and outside forces which threaten to close in as the twenties roar on.
Juliette Cai runs the family burlesque house and the other family business, which happens to be the Scarlet Gang, with an iron fist. She’s determined not to let it slip away from her; the only time she did, disgrace was visited upon her. Roma Montagov, son of émigré parents who fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution to set up their own shop in Shanghai, was her teenage sweetheart and the cause of that disgrace – he betrayed her four years before and she hasn’t forgiven him. Exiled from the bosom of her family because of the affair, Juliette returned only a few years earlier, and has vowed she will never be separated from them again. Juliette has vowed to destroy Roma, while Roma – gentler and quieter – needs the Cai’s family help to solve a horrendous mystery surrounding two murders that have been set up to look like suicides.
Both sides of the war claim innocence, and Juliette, in spite of herself, finds herself working with Roma to find the true reason behind the killings. They soon discover that the force behind the murders may not be simple human greed – and both sides of the war may be huge targets for something beyond their control. All the while, Roma and Juliette’s helpless love for one another grows, portending a violent end that neither party can control.
There aren’t words pretty enough in the English language with which to praise this book. Gong’s contexturalization of Shakespeare is wonderfully handled, and her setting is perfectly researched. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Cai and Montagovs have to deal with new Foreign Concessions, the Communists, and the Kuomintang all jockeying for a place in the hierarchy – but the way Gong layers all of this with supernatural elements, romance, and crime elements is astounding.
Besides scarred, vulnerable-but-tough Juliette and heart-on-his-sleeve Roma and their naturally star-crossed and wonderfully, sympathy-inducing romance, Gong does a perfect job giving Shakespere’s other creations a new set of lungs. Subbing in for Benvolio is Benedickt Montagov, observant and strong of opinion. Mercutio is redrawn as the witty, fiery, multi-lingual Marshall Seo – and the twosome are Roma’s Mutt and Jeff sidekicks, both of whom add a lot of liveliness to the story. The brash, reckless Tyler is our Tybalt expy, and he provides them with a perfect foil.
On Juliette’s side of the fence there’s Kathleen Lang and Rosalind Lim, formerly Juliette’s nurse and Rosaline, respectively. Kathleen is intense and politically motivated, while Rosalind cares more for the simple pleasures of life in Shanghai. There are also new characters, like Roma’s rebellious sister, Alisa. All of them are etched perfectly.
These Violent Delights is a rich, beautiful meal, filled with wonderful twists and turns. The world building is rich and complex, with an interesting look into the caste system which had occurred in the country. To be born Russian but not Montagov is to be doomed to become a dancer or prostitute; to be weak is to be removed from the Scarlet Gang – permanently. There is toughness here, but also beauty, friendship and familial loyalty. There is love. And the love between Roma and Juliette is the strongest and best reason to read this incredible book.
To own this book is to know delight. And to dive deep into the ugly-beautiful universe that Gong gives is us a treasure. I can’t recommend These Violent Delights highly enough, and lovers of mystery, romance and Shakespeare will devour it.
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