The assassin by the name of Rosalind Lang strikes again in Foul Heart Huntsman, the second and final installment in the duology that began with Foul Lady Fortune. Foul Heart Huntsman might not be as truly epic as the finale of the former duology (These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends) in the same world, but it demonstrates Gong’s ability to formulate an idea and see it through in a conclusive, meaningful way. Gong’s consistent strengths – worldbuilding, character relationships, and dialogue — are clear and especially pronounced in this novel. Gong was already a strong writer, but she hits that home in a developed conclusion.
Immortal assassin Rosalind Lang is trying to rescue her fake-lover-turned-real-lover Orion Hong, who’s been brainwashed and is now controlled by his mother, Lady Hong. Lady Hong is working on a series of strength-enhancing and immortality-inducing chemical weapons with the Japanese army against China, threatening the fate of the nation that is home to so many of Gong’s beloved characters. On top of that, the Japanese threat is an even more formidable threat in Foul Heart Huntsman than it was in Foul Lady Fortune. Along with the ever-present conflict between Nationalist and Communist forces, questions of national identity are again thematically ingrained into the plot and the stakeholders in Shanghai’s future.
Gong again displays a structural mastery of careful planting and paying off. The small hints and origins that she set up in Foul Lady Fortune coalesce into a bigger picture in this installment, one that makes readers realize just how grand the vision was. Readers of These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends will marvel especially at the various ways the events and interventions of the past series show up again in Foul Heart Huntsman. After all, Rosalind has a recurring battle with the negative repercussions of her immoral actions in the original duology. That doesn’t go away, even if part of her grief reveals itself to be unwarranted (as readers of Last Violent Call will know).
For those who love the cinematic edge to Gong’s writing, Foul Heart Huntsman doesn’t disappoint. Along with the dramatic betrayals and climactic sacrifices signature of the Secret Shanghai series, nothing is quite what it seems, and the ultimate unraveling of each character’s expectations is fast-paced and full of action. Many aspects of the visual elements, which has always been Gong’s forte, are noteworthy. From poisoned hairpins used for stabbing to a particularly talented sharpshooter, there’s not a line to be missed that describes the turbulent world of Shanghai and those who inhabit it.
Although Foul Heart Huntsman stands well enough on its own as the sequel to Foul Lady Fortune, there are still some reminders of the comparison that comes with Gong’s employing of her previous works. Gong pokes fun at such integrations of the past and the shift in protagonists, evident in the smart humor that embeds itself in her characters’ banter. Still, it’s worth mentioning again that it often feels like Gong finds the sturdiest footing when she’s working with her original story (of Roma and Juliette). That might have to do with the setting — a feud between two warring gangs in the city of Shanghai is hard to beat — but there’s also the fact that Rosalind often comes across as somewhat of an imitation of Juliette, as if there’s nothing in particular that distinguishes the two from one another.
With the character of Juliette, Gong already wrote a character that was skilled at fighting, intelligent when it came to understanding the nuances of power, and loyal to her heart. Rosalind is much the same here; by contrast, she felt much more dynamic when she was written as more of a conflicted antagonist in Our Violent Ends. There’s much to praise about the inclusion of so many strong women as the main characters of the Secret Shanghai series — Rosalind, Juliette, Celia, Alisa, and Phoebe being the ones that come to mind. Yet for such characters, being strong and skilled at physical combat and/or maneuvering comes so naturally to them that it feels like they’re practically impenetrable.
For Rosalind, Juliette, Celia, and Phoebe, the vulnerabilities in their emotional armor are only seen when it comes to their romances. They’re willing to do anything to protect the ones they love: Rosalind for Orion, Juliette for Roma, Celia for Oliver, and Phoebe for Silas. These characters are so fierce and cool to the point that it seems like their only weakness is in the love they have for their significant others. Had just one major character been incredibly inexperienced in violence and the way of spies and double-crossing, that might have lent a new kind of conflict to the cast of characters and the overall plot. Maybe some type of survival instinct would be needed, but this kind of inclusion would be a reminder that not every character needs to be able to defeat eight men with a single knife or shoot down multiple enemies in one go to be worth writing about.
Like in her previous works, Gong uses the framework of a historical and political drama to tell the story of an assassin who gets embroiled in a string of otherworldly chemical killing and the stories of those around her in Foul Heart Huntsman. The novel ends up feeling like a comic book with its own universe. It’s a book with the visual complements necessary to supplement the story’s ambition.
And Foul Heart Huntsman is ambitious. Along with the ongoing conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists, there’s also the associated drama that comes with Nationalist spies and Communist spies who have personal ties with one another. The relationships between individual characters occur in tandem with the relationships between collectives, and the ambition needed to carry that out — successfully, as Gong does again — demands no secret code.