Genre: YA Historical Fantasy; Retelling
Category: Spooky Read
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Rating: 4/5 Stars
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.
This book kicks off very much like a Supernatural episode, which I'm a fan of. Right off the bat, you're introduced to some victims, the monster (not shown), the madness, and the stakes.
The first one-fourth of the book keeps you hooked on action, character tension, gory spectacles of victims ripping themselves apart, and questions that need to be answered (Why does Juliette hate Roma? What did he do? How is the madness spreading? What's causing it?).
Revelations are spaced nicely during this time to keep readers invested, alongside prose that manages to be harsh and gritty as well as poetic in a modern way. Shanghai is painted as a character all its own, given life through personifications of vice and despair woven with the new clashing with the old.
This place hums to the tune of debauchery. This city is filthy and deep in the thrall of unending sin, so saturated with the kiss of decadence that the sky threatens to buckle and crush all those living vivaciously beneath it in punishment.
I admire when authors are able to transform a setting into a character. It's just . . . perfection.
However, for all the strong suits in the plot and descriptions, the characters took some time to become real to me. I felt way more attached to the side characters, through their point of view snippets, long before I warmed up to Juliette and Roma. It felt as though Juliette and Roma were reduced to their roles as heirs rather than their personalities for a good chunk of the book.
Which does set the tone for how difficult it is for them to shed those roles around each other (or anyone, for that matter), but I wish I'd gotten more peeks into their core selves. More of their internal struggles and values at the start (much of this comes into play later, so I'm not lamenting a total loss of character development—merely that it took so long to get to that point).
Getting through the middle of the book felt like climbing a hill, so I found myself meandering and putting it down more than I had in the beginning. Much of the middle was spent searching for answers without getting any. The two main characters weren't progressing in the plot or in their development, so I relied on brief bursts of action and slow hmm rather than aha! moments to pull me through.
Since there were many questions I was dying to have answered, I pushed through to the last fourth of the book where things got interesting.
Finally, here were all the pieces coming together. Here was the character development. Here was the action, the stakes again. It made up for the molehill it made me trundle over to get there. (But could you imagine if the whole book was like that? I would've read it in one sitting!).
“You destroy me and then you kiss me. You give me a reason to hate you and then you give me a reason to love you. Is this a lie or the truth? Is the a ploy or your heart reaching for me?”
There are interesting parallels between the reactions to the madness epidemic in the book and what we're currently dealing with. This is of course a coincidence, being that the book was finished before Covid struck, but it acts as a chilling reflection of reality:
The rich and the foreign, they didn’t truly believe it. To them, this madness sweeping the city was nothing except Chinese nonsense—only to affect the doomed poor, only to touch the believers caught in their tradition. They thought their glistening marble could keep out contagion because the contagion was nothing save the hysteria of savages.
THE VERDICT: Despite the book's slow-going in the middle, I highly recommend finishing it. Ye will be rewarded greatly for your patience as tensions build and the puzzle completes itself. Not only that, but this book leaves on a hell of a cliffhanger that has me dying for the second. Like . . . now.
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