by Caitlyn Paxon
Romeo and Juliet gets a hardboiled makeover in this historical drama set amid the turmoil of a city torn apart by colonialism: In 1920s Shanghai, where we lay our scene, two rival gangs must join forces to hunt down a monster.
Juliette Cai, the daughter of the Scarlet Gang’s powerful head, has only just returned from America, where she was banished in the wake of a catastrophic romantic dalliance. Now she needs to prove to everyone that she can be every bit as ruthless as her father in the quest to keep the Scarlet Gang in charge of Shanghai. But when her people begin dying of a mysterious plague that causes them to rip out their own throats, and she hears whispers that a terrible creature in the river may be the source, she has no choice but to go against her family’s will and team up with Roma, the heir to the White Flowers – sworn enemies of the Scarlet Gang.
To make matters worse, Roma’s the reason her loyalty is always slightly in doubt, because it was falling in love with him when they were only 15 that got her banished in the first place.
Roma shouldn’t be happy about their shaky alliance, but he never did manage to get over Juliette Cai. Now she’s back in his life and making everything harder than it needs to be as they work together to unravel a mystery. The Russian White Flowers may be relative newcomers to Shanghai, but their power in the city runs deep, and if Roma’s father finds out that he’s collaborating with the enemy, his birthright won’t protect him.
But the fact is, none of these petty power struggles will matter if everyone dies of a strange, violent plague. Unless the plague is actually just one more weapon in the war for control of Shanghai.
There is a lot going on here. Romeo and Juliet in 1920’s Shanghai is an elevator pitch; add in a mystery, a monster hunt, and the complexities of Western imperialism and you have almost more than the elevator can hold. It makes These Violent Delights difficult to classify. It isn’t exactly a tragedy, for while many deeply sad things befall its characters, we never linger long upon them. It isn’t a romance, despite the angsty tension between Juliette and Roma, because they barely get a chance to stop and feel it. It’s one part detective story (with Juliette cast as the weary detective and Roma as the femme fatale) and one part heist as the main characters run around the city with their minions in tow, investigating and snooping and generally causing more mayhem than they prevent.
More than anything, These Violent Delights is a rich portrait of a seldom-depicted time and place. I went in knowing very little about early 20th century Shanghai, and was struck by the extent to which the colonizing influences make it feel like a Western city. They didn’t call it “the Paris of the East” for nothing. It’s a city pulled in many different directions as the consequences of historical events spill into the streets – the Opium Wars, the rise of communism, the ongoing supremacist battle between the French and English – it’s all here on the page, tangled up and complicated.
The plot is also a bit tangled up, and at times, the reader is a few steps ahead of whatever discovery the characters are making, creating a bit of a lagging feeling in the pacing. But the characters themselves are interesting, offering queer representation and a lot of moral complexity as they all grapple with the violence that is expected of them. Overall, they are a charming bunch to pass the time with. I was in some ways reminded of an ensemble heist drama like Six of Crows, though this focuses more on the main two characters.
I did find myself questioning whether These Violent Delights really feels like a young adult book. The true teenage feels are mostly located in the backstory as we gradually learn of Juliette and Roma’s early romance and subsequent falling out. In the present of the story, they both feel more like world-weary adults, wielding their power and accepting the fact that who they really are doesn’t matter because their power comes with bleak responsibility. But I think it likely that, in our current, turbulent times, that mood will speak to teen and adult readers alike.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.