Romance and revenge: 'Immortal Longings' is a bloody reimagining of Shakespearean tragedy

Chloe Gong is the author of "Immortal Longings." (Jon Studio)
Chloe Gong is the author of "Immortal Longings." (Jon Studio)

Chloe Gong’s adult fantasy debut “Immortal Longings” is a knife at your back. It’s a story full of bloodshed and betrayal. And as you turn the pages, you’ll quickly learn that there’s nothing and no one you can be certain of.

The book, released Tuesday, takes place in the claustrophobic walled city of Sa-Er, where half a million souls live on top of each other in crushing poverty and desperation. As Gong writes early in the story, “To suffer in San-Er is not a punishment, only a way of life.”

There’s little opportunity for upward mobility in the city, with one exception. Every year, the palace hosts a deadly competition where those with the magical power to jump between bodies must fight to death. The prize for winning? Unimaginable riches.

Former princess Calla Toulemi is hoping to enter this year’s competition, but not for the money. She’s been in hiding since she killed her parents five years ago, and her hunger for revenge against the city’s royalty is a blaze she can’t put out.

But if Calla wants to win and get her second chance at vengeance, she’s going to have to team up with Anton Makusa, an exiled aristocrat with his own set of motives.

The cover of
The cover of "Immortal Longings" by Chloe Gong. (Simon & Schuster/Saga Press)

What unfolds next is a frenetically paced bloodbath entangled with obsession, twisted romance and the complicated magic of body jumping. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But Gong handles each element of the story with a deft hand.

“Immortal Longings” is Gong’s first adult novel, and like her best-selling young adult novels, it is heavily influenced by William Shakespeare’s work.

“I think I have always been really fascinated by the presence Shakespeare takes up in like English literature and the English canon,” Gong says. “I am one of those people who really just loves the kind of language he puts together.”

Gong says she’s more interested in playing with the themes of Shakespeare’s work than directly adapting it. She enjoys extracting the themes central to his storytelling, reworking them into entirely new contexts and seeing what shakes out.

While Gong’s first book “These Violent Delights” is a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1920s Shanghai, Anton and Calla’s story draws its inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra. 

“The fascination I have with Antony and Cleopatra is the character dynamics and all of these big things he's saying about love and obsession and what that drives someone to,” Gong says.

She adds, “It is less a full adaptation of Shakespeare's play and more an adaptation of the kind of characters that Shakespeare wrote up.”

The character dynamics are at the core of what makes this novel work.

In a book that often leaves you breathless from its non-stop action scenes, “Immortal Longings” still takes the time to unravel what makes each character tick, from Calla to Anton to the enigmatic crown prince August.

“The book, yes, it is a fantasy and it has everything that a fantasy needs,” Gong says. “It has plot, world building but ultimately it is still, like in my heart, it is primarily a character study."

But the character that sets “Immortal Longings” apart from so many other fantasy novels is not Anton or Calla. it’s the city of Sa-Er itself. In the book, Sa-Er is more than just a backdrop to the action. It’s integral to the story being told and plays a role in almost every scene.

That’s something Gong says was intentional. While building Sa-Er, she drew from the real-life Kowloon Walled City in British-held Hong Kong. It was once known as the most crowded place on Earth.

“The kind of description that came out of that place where space was so tight, people were living in cages, one on top of each other, which not only was a product of that setting but it was a product of the politics going on at that time,” Gong says.

Kowloon’s status as a Chinese enclave inside British-controlled Hong Kong meant that the city was left unattended by both British and Chinese police. It was essentially ungoverned and lawless.

“I thought about ‘what does a place like this make you do, make you feel, how does it color a character?” Gong says. “It feels almost more important than the actual villains in the story… I feel like the city is its own villain.”

The magic system outlined in “Immortal Longings” is another standout element of the book, blending science fiction tropes and Chinese mythology.

In Sa Er, certain people have the ability to jump and occupy other people’s bodies, an idea Gong says she pulled from the trope of body swapping in science fiction. But she put her own spin on the idea by bringing in the Chinese concept of “qi” as life force.

“I kind of draw from what exists in a lot of Chinese stories about the soul and rework it to be a science fiction convention in a fantasy world,” Gong says.

“The term used in the book ‘qi’ comes from Chinese culture. It's what they believed was, a soul in human… way back in ancient philosophy, they did believe it could be moved,” Gong explains. “There were all these Chinese fairy tales about a human man getting put into a fox or like a fox woman going into a human lady. So a lot of it just draws from… an existing mythos, but very, very differently.”

For Gong, making the transition from writing young adult to adult novels meant giving herself the space to write more complex stories.

“There's a lot of breathing room in adult. There's a lot more space about what these stories can be as opposed to young adult,” Gong says. “As much as I love it, young adult will follow a certain formula because... it is so much about the teenage experience and everything encapsulated in that.”

And writing adult meant that Gong could get messy in the writing sandbox, something she absolutely delighted in. “I love mess…and Anthony and Cleopatra especially has so much mess. And I just love that.”

Ultimately, “Immortal Longings” is a welcome departure from Gong’s earlier work.

It will feel familiar to longtime fans but is still fresh in a way that will appeal to readers hungry for a story with an edge. And while its ambitious premise is dizzying in all that it aims to accomplish, Gong more than delivers.

Book excerpt: 'Immortal Longings'

By Chloe Gong

Copyright © 2023 by Chloe Gong. From the upcoming book "Immortal Longings, published by Saga Press/Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Kalyani Saxena Associate Producer, Here & Now
Kalyani Saxena is an associate producer for Here & Now.



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