[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to welcome author Chloe Gong to the site today. She’s sharing her favorite books that turn settings into characters of their own. Take it away, Chloe!]
Characters can make or break a book, and intriguing characters always grow a life of their own. Take a scroll down the fandom tags on Tumblr or the fan accounts on Twitter, and it is the characters that take center stage for lively discussion and debate. Most interestingly, ‘characters’ can sometimes be found in the setting, when the city location has such an integral presence that it is breathing alongside the walking, talking people appearing in the text. In my upcoming debut novel These Violent Delights, the city of Shanghai has such a large role that there are chapters from its omniscient point of view! Coming November 17th, the book is a Romeo & Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai involving a blood feud between two gangs that runs the city red. Here are five other books where the city plays an integral role in the atmosphere, all of which I adore for the top-tier vibes.
Diamond City by Francesca Flores
Aina works as an assassin in a city brutalized by industrialism, where magic users are persecuted without hesitation. Diamond City is a YA fantasy that feels fresh and new. It is not kingdoms and fields that surround Aina’s journey, but the streets of Kosín, and there, anyone can get into a fight if they wander into a dark alley without watching territory lines. If I had sniffed the book a little aggressively while reading, I’m sure I would have smelled the smoke seeping off the pages—that’s how atmospheric the urban setting of this story is.
The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
This book hurt me with its ending. In Sparrow, there is a season each year where the townspeople believe three witches who were killed centuries ago come back to drown boys in revenge. As Penny tries to make it through the season and keep a stranger in town safe, everything is not what it seems—especially on the little island where she lives. The water, the orchards, and the streets all feel like living entities to add to that creepy, evocative atmosphere. It’s not a city but I’ve got to squeeze it on this list anyway because it’s truly *chef’s kiss*.
The Silence of Bones by June Hur
Set in Joseon Korea, the city in The Silence of Bones pulls you right in with its mists and roads and dim light. Seol is assisting with a murder case of a noblewoman, and in her mission to discover what really happened, she is pulled in and out of a city brimming with secrets and a tangible sense of history. This is a story that you just want to hug yourself after you finish it so you can try to merge right into the pages and enter the setting.
The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh
The Beautiful is a sultry, glittering fantasy that takes place in 1872 New Orleans, and just as Celine is tossed back and forth between its vibrant soirées to its darker underworld, the city is also heaving with its own sense of danger and agency. Is there a serial killer working their way through this setting, deepening the tensions in a supernatural underworld? Yes. Would I trade everything I treasure in life just to visit this version of New Orleans? Also yes.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Of course, no list about cities that feel like characters would be complete without a book where the city is actually five characters. The City We Became follows five New Yorkers, one to represent each borough, coming together to defend against a great, destructive evil. There is truly no worldbuilding more impressive and more mind-blowing than humanizing a city in the literal sense.
And that’s all on the best recent releases with cities that feel like real living, breathing characters. For something upcoming, catch These Violent Delights on shelves November 17th, a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in the 1920s, where Shanghai plays just as pivotal a role as the leading star-crossed enemies.
About the Author:
Chloe Gong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and international relations. During her breaks, she’s either at home in New Zealand or visiting her many relatives in Shanghai. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear when “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” is chanted into a mirror three times. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @TheChloeGong, or check out her website at TheChloeGong.com.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, out now!
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.
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