Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights was one of the buzziest debuts of 2020, an innovative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in a version of1920s Shanghai that’s teeming with gangsters, monsters, and complex politics. To say that expectations for its sequel were sky-high is something of an understatement – but I’m here to confirm that Our Violent Ends will delight everyone who loved this series’ first installment.
Our Violent Ends is still primarily the story of Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, star-crossed lovers and heirs to rival crime organizations known as the White Flowers and the Scarlet Gang. But the scope of the story has expanded beyond their love to encompass the fate of a city in the grips of distinct political upheaval as the Communists and Nationalists battle for the future of China. There are still monsters afoot, but many of them are human this time, rather than a creature lurking in the depths of the local river.
The story begins where These Violent Delights left off: Roma believes Juliette to have murdered his best friend Marshall Seo and is determined to kill her in revenge for his death. Juliette, keeping her own secrets about what precisely happened to Marshall, is allowing Roma his rage because she believes it will help keep him safe in an increasingly fractious and ever violent Shanghai. But when a blackmailer in control of several of the same insect-spawning monsters from the last book begins extorting money from both gangs, the two must work together again in the name of stopping a shared mutual enemy and protecting the people of their city.
Though OUr Violent Ends is a Romeo and Juliet retelling – and does incorporate many key elements from Shakespeare’s tragic love story in surprisingly smart and interesting ways – Gong’s sequel shines when it strays from the proscribed path.
This sequel includes perspectives from characters beyond Roma and Juliette and is at its best when using secondary figures like Rosalind and Kathleen to explore larger questions of family and assimilation in the story. (If only because it acknowledges that Juliette is afforded a certain level of freedom and agency as a rich gangland heiress that the other women in this story are not.) White Flower member Benedikt Montagov is also given a satisfying personal subplot of his own, and even Roma’s sister Alisa gets several moments of her own to shine.
Our Violent Ends also deftly weaves in a story of revolution alongside its gangland drama as the workers’ protest against imperialist rule and gang occupation swells in numbers and the Nationalist Army draws ever closer to Shanghai, intending to unite the country by force if necessary. And as Roma and Juliette’s relationship grows ever more complicated, they’ll have to decide not just what they truly want, but what they’re willing to sacrifice to get – and keep – it.
Gong’s writing remains as rich and evocative as it was in her first novel, and her incorporation of perspectives beyond her lead romance makes for a story that feels much broader in scope than its predecessor, turning Our Violent Ends into a story that’s about more than just Romeo and Juliet. I A romance that’s also a political drama, an unflinching critique of imperialistic colonialism, and an exploration of the socioeconomic consequences the Romanovs and Cais are helping to visit upon the very people they’re claiming to protect, this is truly one of the most thoughtful and original takes on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy that you will find on bookstore shelves right now. Plus, the ending is chef’s kiss perfect: Bittersweet, hopeful, and a deftly-crafted end to a story that nevertheless feels like it will continue well beyond the lives of these characters.
Our Violent Ends may mark the end of Gong’s first duology. But I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.
Our Violent Ends is available now.