Fortune must be on the side of Chloe Gong’s fans, because Gong’s latest novel Foul Lady Fortune is yet another example of how lucky readers are to enjoy Gong’s command of storytelling. As a spin-off to the These Violent Delights duology, Foul Lady Fortune is a retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The novel follows Rosalind Lang from the previous books after an experiment has left her with immortality and magical healing powers. Rosalind is now working for the Nationalists as an assassin by the code name of Fortune. A string of chemical killings throughout Shanghai causes Rosalind to team up with infuriating Nationalist spy Orion Hong in a fake marriage to uncover the mystery of the murders.
The most memorable part of Gong’s previous books was her ability to render and visualize an aesthetic. There’s no doubt that 1920s gangster-ruled Shanghai was the perfect setting for Gong’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet; Gong painted a portrait of two rival gangs in the age of debauchery with remarkable dramatic insight, becoming a modern Shakespeare herself.
Gong’s writing is so riveting that one can’t help but grasp at the tiny hints she’s strung together — they might be the barest, subtlest senses of hope, but still it’s so hard not to be left reeling by them. In fact, that might just be the strongest part of Gong’s prose as a whole. It leaves you with an impact: you can’t help but become emotionally affected by each carefully crafted and well thought-out sentence. There are so many instances when Gong could have outright told the reader her intentions, but instead she drops just enough to engage readers with whispers of meaning.
It’s hard to measure up to the epic nature of her previous duology, and it’s true that Gong’s rendering of a 1930s murder mystery offers a less legendary premise than the star-crossed lovers battling monsters in Shanghai arc. Orion’s humorous character is likable, but the relationship between him and Rosalind doesn’t quite match up to that between Juliette and Roma. Even if Foul Lady Fortune revisits characters of the past in the same city, it feels like something is lacking.
That all-consuming sensation of loss might just be the point. What Foul Lady Fortune details with great intensity is the concept of aftermath. Rosalind’s interiority gives readers insight into the trauma of her past (as detailed in the These Violent Delights duology) and creates a fuller understanding of her character. Alisa and Celia, who readers will know from previous books, similarly reckon with the impact of memory and their roles in the lawlessness of the previous decade. It’s deeply nostalgic as readers imagine the Scarlet Gang’s height of glory while feeling wistful over the presence of obituaries.
Building on the events of her previous novels, Gong shows how Shanghai has been critically altered by the Japanese presence. Along the way, there’s a powerful exploration of themes of power, imperialism, nationalism, and loyalty. As Rosalind and Orion carry out their master plan and uncover secrets, Foul Lady Fortune provides commentary on change, particularly how these characters respond to it. Whenever she’s detailing a map or describing a political conversation between two characters, Gong again exhibits her masterful research skills and mastery over setting and conflict.
Foul Lady Fortune’s exploration of character relationships through Gong’s incredibly intricate language is balanced with her incorporation of a murder mystery. All the puzzle pieces here are deeply intriguing, although the novel suffers from a similar flaw as the two books in its universe. Sometimes, the worldbuilding is so extensive that there are too many layers to unravel; it often seems like Foul Lady Fortune wants to do too much by diverging into several separate paths when it’s clear that the core story is enough. If anything, though, Foul Lady Fortune depicts multiple dynamics that exist between characters and the setting, showing the depth of Gong’s genre-bending writing.
If Our Violent Ends is any indication, Gong is most skilled when she’s writing conclusions. For readers who need closure or just want to experience more of Gong’s upcoming work, Fall 2023 might feel so far away to wrap up Rosalind’s story. Yet it could just come sooner than expected. Fortune might not be a living person as she is in Foul Lady Fortune, but if she was, she’d be found as a writer: in the form of Chloe Gong.