If I were to tell the premise of this book in one sentence, it would be : a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette set in 1920’s Shanghai. How cool is that?
Disclaimer: this review is spoiler free.
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.
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.
Content warnings: This book contains mentions and descriptions of blood, violence, gore, character deaths, explicit description of gouging self (not of their own volition), murder, weapon use, insects, alcohol consumption, parental abuse.
Unsurprisingly, I was immersed into this gorgeous, brutal story (I never thought I’d write those two words together) from page one. How could you not, when the story begins with a line like this:
“In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens
*claps in awe*
Let’s talk about the characters.
Our main character, Juliette, is one badass girl. She’s ruthless and violent and carries about fifteen weapons about her body at a given time, but she also cares deeply about her friends, family, the gang she will inherit and the entire city of Shanghai itself.
Then we’ve got Roma Montagov, heir to the White Flowers, who hates violence but must be in order to prove himself as a worthy heir. Roma misses the old Juliette, before she left for America, but he can’t help himself falling in love with her.
And their love story…damn. It’s marketed as enemies-to-lovers, but I think it’s more of enemies-to-friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers, which is just as complicated as it sounds, full of angst and betrayal and everything we love about this good ol’ trope, except it was ramped up a hundred times. I loved reading every second of it.
I’m also glad that although the romance was there, it didn’t take over the plot at any time, but remained as a subplot. It didn’t feel like a subplot because every time Juliette and Roma interacted their chemistry was OFF THE CHARTS.
“That was what this city is. The party at the end of the world.
Let me tell you how much I loved the worldbuilding. Every historical story I’ve read was set in either Sri Lanka or America or Europe, so it was so refreshing to see early 20th century Shanghai on page. I also love how Chloe Gong explored themes like colonization, casual racism and sexism in her novel. Small things, like Chinese citizens not being allowed in parts of their own city, how westerners consider Juliette ‘better’ because of the American accent she has while speaking English, and how Juliette’s relatives seem to prefer Tyler, one of her cousins, over her to be the heir of the Scarlet Gang. I thought it was masterfully written into the story.
“Even the land of dreams needs to wake up sometimes.
The mystery was constantly intriguing and exciting, and the fantasy aspect of this story was done well too. But had a little trouble imagining what the actual monster looked like. Did it crawl or walk on four legs or two legs? I wasn’t entirely sure. But wow, those twists took me completely by surprise.
And, last but not least, I must mention these four amazing characters, Kathleen, Rosalind, Marshall and Benedikt. I loved how Juliette’s sidekicks were both girls and Roma’s were boys. These four were so well developed with their own problems, struggles and aspirations which were quite different from Roma and Juliette’s.
Plus, that ENDING. How can you end a book like that. I wanna read book two right now (it’s actually releasing in November) but I’m so scared because we all know how the original story ends…
My final rating: ★★★★★ (4.5 stars, rounded up to five)