Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: YA Fantasy
Release date: November 17th, 2020
Goodreads page: here
TW: gory, violence, murder
My rating: 4/5 ⭐
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
When a few reviews started to come out about this book a few months ago, it immediately picked my interest. A Romeo & Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai? Hell yes, it sounded absolutely brilliant. A dark and gory story between two rival gangs? Yes please! The premise of this book was amazing. However, it took me a lot of pages to really appreciate my reading, but really, it was so worth it to keep going.
First of all, let's talk about what I didn't like about this book: The writing at the beginning of the book was dense. So dense, and full of info dumping that I couldn't read more than 20 pages at a time. I wasn't invested at all in the story nor the characters. It was such a pain to read that honestly, I considered DNF-ing this book twice. I did put this book on hold for a few weeks, and it took me 3 weeks to get through the first 150 pages. It surprised me because I'm pretty used to dense world-building in epic fantasy books in general, and I often love world-building. But in this case, I didn't like the full info-dumping and maybe I was also too tired to care. So yeah, the beginning was hard to get through.
But, and that "but" is important because, after getting through the first 150 pages, the story started to pick up and I finally started to get invested and intrigued about this book. I started to care about the characters and without even knowing it, I was in love with the story and Juliette Cai. Honestly, I don't know what really happened here, but suddenly, this book wasn't so bad at all and I almost couldn't put it down.
“Was it loyalty that created power? Or was loyalty only a symptom, offered when the circumstances were favorable and taken away when the tides turned?”Juliette's character and development were absolutely amazing. This character became honestly one of my favorite female characters. She was just so badass, fierce, ruthless and cold, like a true gangster queen and I couldn't do anything but root for her. She was willing to do anything to protect her people and take responsibility and she did it wonderfully. Roma paled in comparison honestly. I found him boring, weak and useless at first and it was hard for me to ship them. But eventually, he became more interesting and even though I thought him soft, he was still a ruthless gangster. I also really enjoyed the secondary characters, especially Marshall and Benedikt, with their loyalty to their gang. Their POVs were so interesting, funny and gripping and added a lot to the story.
The romance was surprising because it was actually a star-crossed mixed with second chance trope, and it felt very new and different from what I had read before. It wasn't the main focus of the book though, and that was fine by me because I was more invested by the plot and the politics than the romance for the most part of the book. The tension between the two characters became however, incredibly well done, and I found myself on the verge of tears in some moments. Believe me when I say that I was the first surprised about it, but the author's writing became so gripping and beautiful. For a debut novel, the author really knows how to write powerful and emotional scenes.
“They believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land in Shanghai. Everywhere they went— entitlement.”What I also really enjoyed about this book (and honestly that was my favorite part), was the setting and how the author talked about the politics and colonialism in this book. The story was set in 1926, Shanghai, where the city was completely torn apart by Western imperialism. With bits of lands occupied by the British, the French, and the Russians, with the growing Communist party, and the constant war between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, the author didn't shy away in her representation of colonialism and the consequences on the people who didn't ask anything but still lost their land, culture and power. I just love it when POC authors are delivering the tea in their books by denouncing colonialism (wink wink at The Poppy War with the Hesperians), it needed to be said and the author just went for it. Honestly a huge win for me, and that's why I will always prefer to read own-voices books.
“These days, Juliette,” he said, low and warily, “the most dangerous people are the powerful white men who feel as if they have been slighted.”The last 100 pages of the book were a wild-ride full of action and plot-twists and I read it in one sitting. I really enjoyed the ending but, as I said earlier, I had seen so many comments or reviews about how shocked and painful would be the ending that I was expecting more. It was great, but my expectations kind of ruined it a bit for me.
Overall, I would still recommend this book because despite some issues with the beginning, the rest of the book was amazing and so SO worth it. So yeah, if you struggle with the beginning, I swear keep going because the rest of the book will sweep you away in an immersive political and dark story, full of betrayals and hard truths.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and may not be present in the finished copy.