It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of one of history’s most well-known playwrights. It may be even more difficult to follow in the footsteps of one of this generation’s most talented bestselling YA authors: Chloe Gong. With Our Violent Ends, Gong proves that within the young adult genre, she’s just as masterful a storyteller as Shakespeare himself.
Our Violent Ends, the heart-wrenching finale in this stunning duology, completely blows These Violent Delights out of the (Shanghai) water. Although These Violent Delights was a well-written introduction to Gong’s narrative, it pales in comparison to Our Violent Ends, which continues the story of Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, two star-crossed lovers and gangster heirs in turbulent 1920s Shanghai. As the two face the threat of another monster and get mixed up in the politics of the Chinese Civil War, Gong amps up the supernatural stakes, the political conflict, and the personal romances in her sequel. And while second novels are often no match for the first, Gong ensures that for her readers, her second is the most memorable.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is at the heart of Gong’s two-part series, but the romance as a whole felt lacking in the first novel. In These Violent Delights, Roma and Juliette’s interactions seemed bland, their emotional weight awkwardly explained to the audience as if to let Shakespeare’s original romance do the grunt work. It was hard to become truly sympathetic as a reader to the romantic aspect. However, Gong doesn’t shy away from that here.
In Our Violent Ends, Roma is still reeling from what he believes is a shocking betrayal from Juliette, and it affects the way he expresses his emotions. Juliette is sacrificing so much for Roma even as she knows that because of her “betrayal,” he wants her dead. There’s a lot more passion and a lot more internal conflict; here the two characters possess the chemistry that was told rather than shown to the audience in the first book. Roma’s personality is more developed, his swoon-worthy attachment to Juliette given more insight.
There are a few moments where the dialogue veers towards cheesiness, but overall Gong’s prose is beautiful and romantic. Gong adds some mild steaminess and yet keeps the dynamic implicit enough that the audience is just as confused about what’s going on with their relationship as Roma and Juliette are. It’s just enough to keep readers wanting more. The side characters, especially the romance between Roma’s best friends Marshall and Benedikt, are also compelling enough to capture the audience’s attention without deviating from the main characters.
What made These Violent Delights so distinct and original was Gong’s in-depth rendering of 1920s Shanghai. Gong examines the city’s specific struggles with imperialism and colonialism combined with more abstract understandings of lust, greed, and power. Gong’s aesthetic and narrative explorations of those themes from a more historical perspective is impressive. When those historical forces are combined with the additional otherworldly threat of monsters, however, the book doesn’t quite find steady footing. Threats on all sides make the story even more intense, but in that process Our Violent Ends ends up sacrificing some clarity and cohesion, turning an elaborate plot into a complicated one.
It’s emotionally taxing, sometimes frustrating even, that Gong chooses to conform so closely to the original tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But it makes sense — the title promises a violent end, and it’s true to the essence of her story, which is about violence and corruption, and love despite all of that. The tragic storyline that unfolds is just as heartbreaking as the original Romeo and Juliet, but the pain feels necessary to achieve the effect that Gong desires.
Our Violent Ends keeps everything shocking, exciting, and dramatic enough that every moment induces some kind of emotion, whether it’s suspense or fear or disbelief. Gong has truly outdone herself with this installment by reinventing the Shakespeare canon with this wonderful tribute. Our Violent Ends is the kind of story you keep thinking about after you’ve turned the last page, the kind of story that becomes a true classic of its own.