New York Times Bestselling Author Chloe Gong reworks and re-energises fantasy tropes for this gripping page-turner.
Immortal Longings by Chloe Gong is an ode to biopower, badass female protagonists, and commitment to revolution. It is her first adult fantasy novel and an absolute hit. With violence, action, and sexual tension at every turn, this book needs to be on your summer reading list. After staking her claim on the Young Adult literary scene at the age of 19 with the runway success of These Violent Delights, Immortal Longings brings her signature blend of East Asian fantasy and tortured romance to an adult audience, putting a fresh and exhilarating spin on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Every year, thousands flock to San-Er, the dangerously dense capital twin cities of the kingdom of Talin, and host to a set of deadly games. Those confident in their ability to jump between bodies can enter a fight to the death for the chance to win unimaginable riches.
Princess Calla has been in hiding for five years, ever since she murdered her parents to free the people of Talin from her tyrannical family. But now she has to finish the job and there’s only one person standing in her way – her reclusive uncle, King Kasa. However, the King always greets the winner of the games. If she wins, she will finally get the chance to kill him.
Anton Makusa, meanwhile, is deep in debt trying to keep his childhood love Otta Avia alive, despite being in a coma since both himself and Calla were ousted from the palace. His last chance to save her is by entering the games and winning. When Anton proposed an unexpected alliance with Calla, they quickly found their partnership spiralling into something all-consuming. Before the games close, Calla must decide what she’s playing for – her lover or her kingdom. Because only one of them can walk out of the games alive.
Immortal Longings is fast-paced, thrilling, and vividly presents the failings of capitalist modernity. Genre tropes may feel boring to some, but there’s a reason those of the fantasy genre are so successful. They include a corrupt monarchy needing to be overthrown, which Gong recycles here: King Kasa’s governance degenerated due to the repeat failings of its administration, evocating tones of Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire. Furthermore, the violent games that Calla and Anton partake in rework the success of The Hunger Games, while being intertwined with the pulse of the city, which is ever-present and haunting. By adapting fantasy tropes, Gong builds a vivid and vibrant setting with effortless worldbuilding, meaning the reader can already experience the secondary world without having to read thirty pages of information dumping.
Whilst some aspects of the plot appeared predictable, Gong takes the reader on twists and turns. Action defines this novel, whether that be Calla battling her way through the games – slicing, slashing, jumping – or the backroom politicking within the palace walls and alleys of San-E.
Because Calla is constantly fighting for her life (it is only through regicide that she can carry out justice and revenge), her vulnerabilities are kept hidden from the reader, as if we too are a player in the game. Although I wanted to see more of Calla’s vulnerabilities earlier in the novel, they did manifest in her fighting and impulsive and passionate persona. These contrast with Anton’s obvious weakness – his love for Otta Avia, also a princess and victim of the yaisu sickness, which can occur if a person tries to jump into another vessel’s body too many times and is rejected from the other physical body. Just as Antony and Cleopatra were opposites in national loyalty, Calla and Anton are opposites in how their weaknesses are portrayed by Gong. But as the novel progresses, Gong reveals that Calla’s hardened exterior to others and life in San-Er is a product of her life experiences – she harbours the suffering of the city yet this is the very thing that drives her need for justice.
Immortal Longings is brilliantly escapist. But I could not ignore Gong’s exploration of biopower and her allegorisation of healthcare, especially in the context of a post-pandemic world. The magic system is called jumping, in which a person’s qi – meaning soul or life force in Chinese – transfers from one physical body into another physical body. This can be done on a whim, or for the purpose of survival if the original host body is injured or dies. Jumping is frowned upon in the palace. In defiance, Anton would jump from body to body, changing his physical appearance on a whim. Calla, however, is vehemently against jumping. Their opposing approaches to bodily agency and bipower positions them as adversaries once more. While Calla sees the physical body as a temple, Anton only sees a physical body as a temporary host for his soul.
This makes the novel profoundly political. Details of bodies being burnt and discarded because healthcare bills cannot be paid and physical bodies piling high because of the untreatable yaisu sickness evokes images of the Covid-19 death toll. San-Er reflects the bleak reality of modern capitalism and presents privatised healthcare as devoid of compassion for the people who need help the most. This gives a traditional fantasy trope – of wealth disparities in a corrupt hierarchical, non-democratic society – a modern retelling.
The imagery of the physical body beats throughout the novel, personifying Calla’s home: San-Er is a breathing being, the energy fuelling its bright lights like the qi pulsating through the bodies of the occupants of the city. San-Er is constantly moving, beating, and hosting life, as well as witnessing the loss of it. Bodily identity creates friction on all levels: between Calla and Anton, between the people and the palace, between the consumer and the supplier.
Immortal Longings is a refreshing, politically engaged, action-packed fantasy tale. Pre-order now or buy your copy on 25 July 2023.