I love Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare reimaginings. And when I saw this beautiful cover boasting one of my favorite lines from Romeo and Juliet as the title, I knew I had to request it.
Set in 1920s Shanghai, These Violent Delights introduces us to Juliette Cai, heir to the Scarlet gang, and Roma Montagovs, heir to the White Flowers. These rival gangs have been involved in a blood feud for as long as anyone can remember, but when a mysterious contagion begins infecting members from both sides, ending in horrible, violent deaths, they must decide if they will work together to solve the mystery of who and what is responsible for the madness, or if they will adhere to the old ways and battle alone. I really enjoyed this book. Re-tellings of such a classic text can be difficult to do successfully. People feel loyalty to the original and it has to be really spectacular to thrive. Gong does a wonderful job maintaining her originality while remaining respectful to Romeo and Juliet. I loved the central mystery of the monster and the madness. It gave the story a fresh, creepy focus that worked really well. Keeping the central plot solely on Romeo and Juliet's love story wouldn't have provided much since this has been done in many iterations already, and if you're anything like me, you have a soft spot in your heart for Baz Luhrman's cinematic masterpiece. So I was pleasantly surprised that their love wasn't front and center, but rather another layer to complicate the plot. There's a lot going on: drug wars, Communist revolution, a monster, madness, vicious family feuds, changing demographics adding unrest to Shanghai, and political upset. Because of this, I felt the prose was a little dense at times, several pages of telling/giving backstory or explanation instead of propelling the story forward. For me, I want the action to keep moving, but if you're a fan of historical texts, this might work better for you. I didn't dislike having the added depth, but I would've preferred it to be in conjunction with the conflict rather than added exposition. What I also really enjoyed about this was Gong's use of the traditional plot to highlight relevant social issues. This isn't just a story about rival gangs and killer monsters, love and morality. It's a story about identity--who we are to our family, our community, to ourselves. How we define who we are by our names and reputations--and oh, do I love a good study on reputation. It's also a story of assimilation and imperialism, how the changing demographics create this juxtaposition of old and new Shanghai. I had to remind myself several times that this was set in the 1920s, because Gong did a wonderful job of making the world feel incredibly present, calling into question the line between respecting cultural traditions and blending toward progress. Overall, These Violent Delights is a stunning, fun, gripping debut which pays homage to a classic while embracing a striking new voice. If you're a fan of Shakespeare, international narratives, or stories that add a giant monster when you least expect it, you're going to want to add this one to your TBR. Big thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for providing an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.