It’s safe to say that I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked up this book, but it was nothing to what I expected. I thought I was going to read a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet and have an interest in the love story and it to be heavily focused on that. Instead, what I was met with was a face paced thriller where true friendships and family and love for a city was wrapped in the love between two characters on opposing sides.
First, it was so refreshing to not have the meet between Roma and Juliette on the page. Instead, to be informed that they had already fallen in love and a tragic attack on Scarlet soil had them split apart. Then have it four years later where the two believe the other has nothing but hate for each other. It felt so refreshing and easy to feel the connection between them two in a matter of pages. Knowing that there was history between them made you feel connected and invested in their relationship already, rather than having chapters filled with the connection building up — the tension was already there.
I had been struggling a bit recently with some books I had read. I didn’t feel that invested in them and it took a lot longer than normal to get through an entire novel. But within the first chapter I knew I was hooked. To open up with an attack on two gangster groups members, revealing a mysterious madness that had people reaching to gouge out their own throats. I had no idea this was what I was getting into. That it was not going to be heavily focused on the romance as I was anticipating, but rather on the story itself. Suddenly I was seeing exactly why people were raving about the book and had me wanting to continue reading instantly. It has been a while since an opening chapter has done that for me. But to throw the reader straight into the drama, to not have to spend a while getting to know the characters or the setting or even building up the story. Gong did a very clever and refreshing job of throwing the reader straight into the deep end.
As the story continued, I couldn’t help but feel gripped to the characters. To have such depth on the original take of Shakespeare’s classic characters and mould them to work in both the era and the setting Gong had created. First having Juliette as a member of a Gangster gang that originated in Shanghai. To feel the sense of home and the love she had for the city and the people. The duty she naturally had to try and keep foreigners from wrecking her city. Then to have Roma Montagov as a member of the Russian gang who had control of the other half of Shanghai. Almost to see the opposite, as if they had invaded and tried to take over the city from the original family. There was no explanation needed for why their was a family feud — from those choices it already made sense.
I have to say, I also loved the side characters. To have Rosalind, a subtle nod to the original text there, as a dancer in the club and not wanting much to do with the gangster life, but for her sister Kathleen to be known as the pacifist and yet throws everything aside to help Juliette and the Cia family. I loved seeing the dynamic between the sisters, and truly showed how gangster life can affect people. Then to have Roma’s cousin, Benedikt and friend Marshall. To see the friendship between them but also the loyalty they have for their White Flower heir. I was routing for the two to realise there is more than friendship and to act on it, and I loved seeing the closeness between the two.
But at the end, it all comes down to Roma and Juliette, and how Gong portrayed what their choice of livelihood can have on two people in love was breathtaking to read.
Even in all the dark and destruction scenes, there was also humour. I especially loved the little nod Gong did when Juliette was giving fake names for her and Roma and she called him Montague and then Roma moans that it was more Italian than Russian. That was a very clever link to the original source and did make me chuckle.
The main part of this book that I thought was done magnificently was to see the relationships between the different groups within Shanghai. I do not know much about the city in the 1920s, but I assume it was a battle between the history of gangsters and the rise in communism. At least, this is what I am taking from Gong’s novel as what she did to show the dynamics between the groups was marvellous. To see the relationships between the Chinese, the Russian, the British, the French, etc… was not only intriguing but a beautiful nod to each society. To have a mixture of the languages throughout the novel and an on going reminder that the city was filled with different accents. It felt like you were exploring a true place filled with different dialects and accents as you would in the real world. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the next book, especially with the ending indicating the rise in communism ever growing.
I did love the twists and turns in the novel where you were forever guessing what the source of the madness was, how it had come to Shanghai and who was controlling it. And I have to say, I did not call it. Just saying… if you have been reading this review and still haven’t read the book… I am warning you now… I am going in spoiler territory to the extreme… because I did not call the ultimate bad guy being Paul Dexter. His interaction with Juliette before had me feeling he was boring, didn’t have many brain cells and just a man obsessed with a woman way out of his league. But perhaps that was because those were Juliette’s feelings and it was all from her perspective. I thought it was a nice surprise to realise they had been interacting with the man they were trying to find the entire time. I knew when Juliette killed Zhang Gutai that it wasn’t him. It was too easy and the pay off wasn’t there. So to find out it was Paul, and not only that but the man they had been expecting, Qi Ren, to in fact be the monster himself… I see what you did there Gong — very clever.
But let’s face it, every action, every sequence in the book was leading to that ending. It was obvious Tyler was a prat, and to threaten a child’s life such as Alisa’s had me praying he meets a dark fate in the next book. But how heartbreaking that Juliette knew she could not have Roma and rule her city together. I really felt it was such a beautiful character journey for Juliette for her to realise that she did truly love Roma, and in order to protect him she needed him to hate her.
I felt it extremely creative how at the end of the novel we have Juliette realising she is the cause to heartbreak as much as Roma. At the beginning of the novel we have Roma believing Juliette should hate him as he was the cause for people she loved to be murdered, such as her Nanny. But then for it to switch at the end where Juliette believes Roma should hate her because she caused his mother’s fate at the exact same age — I thought the juxtaposition of the roles reversed was outstanding. But not only that, but the switch that Juliette was smart enough to save one of Roma’s friends.
I didn’t want to believe she would kill Marshall just to try and ensure her safety as well as Roma’s, so when it was revealed that she had cleverly worked out a scheme in moments to ensure he stayed alive had me on the edge of my seat.
As much as I did love Roma and the side characters, it was nothing to what I felt for Juliette throughout the book. Safe to say she is my favourite character. The journey she went on with how she wanted to hate Roma to begin with because of what he did, but then to understand she was as much at fault for someone he lost as he was. For her to feel the guilt, believing he should hate her for it as Roma obviously felt Juliette should hate him for what he did. But I loved the twist where of course in Shakespeare’s tale, the fall between the houses started with Juliet’s cousin killing Romeo’s friend, but to change it that Roma believes Juliet did it, but that truly she saved him from dying and was clever enough to get them out of the predicament with what Tyler was doing… just gripping.
To see the difference where she no longer denied her love for Roma and to accept that it never truly went away. What female power, and I love how strong Gong has made her — especially since no offence to Shakespeare’s source, but Juliet did come across as a bit of a wet wipe. You could really see her journey and the cliffhanger at the end instantly had me pre-ordering the next book.
I’ll be honest and say I have not been this impressed with a new author in a very long time. Normally I love the fantasy and fictional worlds element, and I can’t remember the last book I read that I loved even though was set in our world. Safe to say this is my top book I have read this year, and I will be highly recommending it to anyone who will listen.