Immortal Longings by Chloe Gong
Hodderscape, pb, £14.85
Reviewed by Joely Black
Immortal Longings is a young adult fantasy pitched as a retelling of Anthony and Cleopatra. I don’t normally like either romance or young adult fantasy, but as this is my period of study, I was curious to see what Chloe Gong did with the story.
The book is set in the fictional city of San-Er, and I’ll start by saying this: the city is beautifully described. It is the standout feature of the book, in fact. San-Er, which was once apparently two separate cities, is ruled by a “King Kasa” and is a chaos of building and reconstruction toppling into itself. Think Hong Kong or even Kowloon Walled City writ large. The city comes alive in a way that, quite honestly, very little of the rest of this work does.
Our main protagonist is Calla, a scion of the ruling family of the lost second city. She is in hiding, having killed her own family for reasons that aren’t generally revealed until further into the story. She is trying to get into an annual killing event run by King Kasa as an opportunity to access Kasa and kill him off.
I have two major problems with this setup. One relates to a more general problem I’ve had with young adult fiction lately, and the other is specific to Calla herself. Let’s tackle the more general one first. Ever since The Hunger Games took over the zeitgeist of young adult fiction, rampant killing has become de rigour. It’s meant to convey the same sense of threat produced by The Hunger Games and its ilk, but at this point and in this particular book, it has been ramped up to such a level that I feel like it’s becoming tacky, even tasteless.
King Kasa’s annual event is an opportunity for eighty-eight people to enter a Hunger Games-style mass killing. This takes place in the city itself rather than in an arena, and although it’s publicised and viewed on TVs, it’s honestly not clear why it needs to happen at all. It’s so much death, and so many bystanders are killed in the process, that it leaves the reader numb. If life doesn’t matter, then there is no sense of threat. I hate reading a book and feeling like this.
The second problem is specific to Calla’s character. We learn early on that she killed her own family in their entirety. It’s only later that we discover that Calla did this because she was sick of the violence and cruelty of the city’s system and wanted a better world. Gong tells us this as she tells us many things without ever really demonstrating this.
This remains a problem throughout the rest of the book. I am unconvinced that Calla is motivated by a desire to improve the lives of the regular population; it’s never proven in her actions. All we know about her, and all that’s shown, is that Calla is an expert killer. This frustrates me intensely because this is another feature of trends in young adult fiction that the only way to demonstrate that a female character is “strong” is that she kills or is capable of killing.
Given all this violence, you’d assume the book was at least a blood-soaked rip-roaring ride through a fantasy city. But it isn’t. Every time the action kicks off, we must trudge through extended paragraphs of characters thinking back to past events and decisions. I can see how this is meant to provide us with all the essentials of fiction, but it is a drag on the unfolding plot. At one point, a character is meant to launch into a response to something, but it takes Gong five paragraphs to explain the background to this choice of response. I actually forgot what was even happening in the present.
All this has left me greatly disappointed. There is a ton of potential here, certainly in terms of general setting. However, without the justification behind the killing, it just becomes violence for the sake of violence. The characters are only superficially developed and leave a great deal to be desired. Overall, my experience of reading this was boredom. This is not a book I can recommend.