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.
I was actually pretty upset initially because so many of my friends got the arc of this book while I didn’t, and I was jealous that they were raving about a book I couldn’t read. It took me this long to finally get to it because naturally, the waitlist at my library was long and but definitely worth it.
I can’t say I’ve read any Shakespeare but I do know the basics of some of his popular works because I’ve seen the movies. So even if I don’t know how close to the original Romeo Juliet this retelling is, I felt that that author managed to capture the vibe of two feuding gangster families perfectly well. The writing is very beautiful and evocative, digging into our hearts and making us feel everything the characters are, as well as the horror of what’s happening in the plot. The pacing is also breakneck, with everything happening quickly and I was left worried about what was gonna happen next. But the best part of this book is totally the setting. The world of 1920s Shanghai, on the cusp of modernization due to partial colonization by the British and the French and the entitlement and contempt with which the foreigners treat the locals; and the political turmoil between the Nationalists and Communists which might result in a revolution any day, is captured perfectly and tugs at the heartstrings powerfully of those of us readers who have similar feelings about our own colonial history.
Juliette and Roma are such compelling characters to follow along, especially Juliette. She is bold and ruthless, deserving of her title as heir of Scarlet Gang who loves her city and people, but she is also angry about having to confront her complicated feelings about Roma. He on the other hand really longs for a better, less bloodthirsty world and to be honest, it broke my heart because it was obvious that this world would swallow him whole for standing by his principles. The author does a marvelous job letting us feel the tug of war between their hearts, the endless yearning and the slow rebuilding of a truce, and it was a delight to read.
There are also many side characters and it was so much fun that we got short POV chapters from them as well. I particularly enjoyed Kathleen, Juliette’s cousin who is one of her greatest supporters and always tries to help her, no questions asked. Benedikt and Marshall who are Roma’s BFFs also share a very bantery dynamic which was a breath of fresh air in between very intense scenes. There were also quite a few characters who can be termed as loose cannons and I can’t wait to see what more havoc they will wreak in the future.
In the end, this is a book that blends many genres perfectly – it’s a historical fiction that explores themes of colonialism with lot of heart; it’s a thrilling mystery where the characters have to work together to find the monster before more people are killed; and it’s a brilliant rivals to lovers second chance romance which is brimming with yearning. If all this can’t convince you to pick up this book, then I don’t know what will. And now I’m left with dread about what’s gonna happen in the sequel because the author left the story at a major cliffhanger and all I can do is wait.