Read: 8th November 2020 – 13th November 2020
Spoilers in review: No
Rep: chinese main characters, chinese side characters, korean side character, trans woman side character, implied achillean side characters
CW: insects, pandemics, gang violence, gun violence, knife violence, murder, body horror, suicide, brief suicidal thoughts, child abuse, death of close family member, illness of close family member, cancer, comas, alcohol consumption, brothels, transphobia, racism, discussion of colonialism
Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
I loved this book! It’s a unique take on Romeo and Juliet that manages to be unique and surprise the reader at every turn, while also still being recognisable as the story that it’s retelling. Iconic scenes from the original Shakespeare play, such as the ball and the balcony scene, are still present here, but their new contexts make them feel both familiar and fresh!
This book also provides a commentary on the Westernisation of Shanghai. There was a lot of discussion of people and businessmen from Britain, France, and the USA, living in Shanghai and not being respectful to the people who already live there. Juliette notes that since this influx, aspects of Shanghainese culture have been disappearing, political control over the city has started to go to the Westerners, and some establishments have even been set up within Shanghai that bar Chinese people from entering. Juliette finds this last one to be particularly absurd, and she’s right! She also comments on the ridiculousness of being expected not to call out these injustices because by doing so she might hurt someone’s feelings. Also, while this is going on, the Communist Party is gaining support throughout China. All of the major characters in this book, being gang members, would be potential targets of the Communist Party, so this is obviously a cause for concern for them as well.
I adored the characters in this book! Juliette was such a fun protagonist! She’s vicious, she’s ambitious, she’s intelligent, she’s unapologetically herself, and she isn’t afraid to let the people she loves know that she loves them. Unless, of course, it’s Roma. Her cousins, Rosalind and Kathleen, were also interesting, as they allowed for a deeper understanding of what life is like in the Scarlet Gang when you’re not its heir. I especially liked Kathleen. She’s loyal to Juliette, generally friendly, and while she likes to avoid bloodshed wherever possible that doesn’t mean that she isn’t prepared to get involved with killing someone.
On the White Flowers’ side, I liked Roma more than I was expecting to! He’s a sweetheart, who doesn’t really want to be a part of a gang, but walking away would put him in more danger than staying does, so he’s stuck. His cousin Benedikt was lovely, and their friend Marshall was so great! Benedikt and Marshall as a duo especially were a lot of fun to read, their scenes pretty much always got me smiling! Thing is, Marshall obviously being Mercutio, I spent a lot of my time reading this feeling absolutely terrified for him. Gong made me love Marshall right from his introduction! And which character is the first to die in the original play?
The villains of this book were also done remarkably well. I’m not going to go into too much more detail here because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that I’m rooting for Tyler/Tybalt’s destruction and cannot wait for him to get his comeuppance.
Certain aspects of the fantasy plague also hit closer to home than was probably anticipated while this book was being written. It’s mentioned a couple of times that while some people are doing all that they can to prevent the spread and are staying home, some people are simply going about their lives as normal and pretending that nothing is wrong, likely in the false assumption that the sickness is something that happens to Other People. It couldn’t possibly ever affect them, so why should they alter their behaviour? The way in which the plague acts and spreads is rooted firmly enough in fantasy that it didn’t feel too real, but the links are still there. Wear a mask y’all.
If you like any one of Shakespeare, historical fantasy, gangs and/or heists, or exes turned enemies to lovers, then you’ll enjoy this book! I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to its sequel!
I received an e-arc through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
About The Author
Chloe Gong is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and International Relations. During her breaks, she’s either at home in New Zealand or visiting her many relatives in Shanghai. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear by chanting “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” into a mirror three times. You can find her on Twitter @thechloegong, check out her website at thechloegong.com or email her at email@example.com.
About The Blogger
El is a 21 year old university student from the UK who loves to read and loves talking about what they read. They particularly like to focus on books featuring lgbtq+ main characters.