Chloe Gong became a New York Times bestselling author while still a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she double majored in English and International Relations. Fans of her Secret Shanghai series—comprised of two connected young adult duologies retelling Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, set against the backdrop of 1920s-1930s Shanghai—were clamouring for Immortal Longings, her adult fiction debut and the first book in her Antony and Cleopatra-inspired Flesh and False Gods trilogy. I was as excited as anyone to attend the discussion at The Glee Club in Birmingham, part of Gong’s UK Immortal Longings tour. She was interviewed by Kate Dylan, author of the dystopian sci-fi novel Mindwalker.

Gong’s new novel takes place in the twin cities of San-Er, where every year its residents are given the chance to enter a fight to the death among 88 players, the winner gaining incredible riches. Key to winning the games is the ability to mentally inhabit, or “jump” between, different bodies. Princess Calla Tuoleimi has been a fugitive since she murdered both her parents in cold blood and fled the palace. Now, she is entering the games for the opportunity to kill her uncle, King Kasa. Exiled aristocrat Anton Makusa needs the prize money to keep his comatose childhood sweetheart alive. Their tentative allyship leads to a consuming passion, making them question exactly what they are fighting for.

“I like to pitch Immortal Longings as specifically the characters of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra as opposed to the greater play Antony and Cleopatra,” says Gong. “In Shakespeare’s work, it’s the interpersonal relationship between these two very powerful people that held my attention the most, and that’s what I wanted to adapt. Themes of love, obsession, co-dependency—and whether anything good can survive in that sort of setting—is the beating heart of this trilogy.”

Calla and Anton are not the only Shakespeare-derived characters who appear—there is also Prince August Shenzhi, the king’s adopted son. August is Gong’s version of Octavius Caesar, who leads Rome alongside Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s play. Calla and August are both convinced that they are acting for the greater good of their kingdom, while Anton believes there is no such thing. The three find themselves embroiled in a convoluted power struggle.

“They were all so messy,” says Dylan, in conversation with Gong. “They all believed they were doing the right thing, which couldn’t possibly be true.” She quips that she doesn’t think any of them completely thought their plan through. “But also [because] they were so diametrically opposed that they couldn’t all be right.”

“[T]here is cognitive dissonance in every single one of these three main characters and that is so much fun,” says Gong. She discusses using multiple points of view, so readers can both agree with and question each character’s beliefs. She was also drawn to the idea of a central three-person cast because of the prevalence of triumvirates in Roman history, which is the basis for Antony and Cleopatra. “And yet as we’ve seen with the first and second triumvirates, they keep ending in flames. It just never somehow works. And that was kind of the vibe I wanted to go for. They are in some way always opposed to each other; they are in some way still working together from every angle. And yet you can tell they all function off each other and they’re all still trying to destroy each other.”

In addition to an intense dynamic between the power-hungry main characters, Immortal Longings also has a compelling setting. Dylan prompted Gong to speak more about the world where this battle for control among the aristocrats takes place:

“The reason why this is fantasy and not historical fantasy in the way that my [young adult fiction] is,” Gong answers, “is because I wanted to take this inspiration point, I wanted to take these sorts of themes that have always been revolving around in history, but not be tied to the actual events that were occurring. In These Violent Delights I was very interested in the outbreak of the civil war and how that affects these characters that I have made up and that interplay between history and my own story. But in [Immortal Longings] I am so much more interested in the ideas: what is it that creates a place like this? What is it that you need in order to survive in a place like this and how can things change if you then add in certain elements […]?”

The Secret Shanghai series can be described as historical fiction, with the historical context providing “a definitive reference point when it came to building [the] plot,” infused with elements of fantasy. On the other hand, the Flesh and False Gods trilogy takes place in an entirely fictional setting, but one in which history still plays a role. “Flesh and False Gods is a secondary fantasy world, which meant I had the liberty to mash up a 90s Kowloon Walled City with the rise of the Roman Empire. While my playing field widened significantly, it was also harder in the planning process trying to define my own parameters so that there were definitive rules in a world I could entirely mould.”

Because Shakespeare’s characters are at the centre of this historically contemplative fantasy epic, we are inevitably led to a discussion about a character who has fascinated historians and literary scholars for centuries. Cleopatra is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters and is a monumental role to perform. I asked if this was daunting to Gong when she started writing Calla’s character:

“It wasn’t daunting, per se, but it did mean that I really wanted to capture the essence of what makes her so interesting. In my reading of Shakespeare, Cleopatra is very hard to pin down because she isn’t defined by a few traits in the vein of classic character archetypes. Instead of deciding whether Calla Tuoleimi was going to be the good guy or descend into villainy, I went into her character with a list of things she believes about her world in the beginning, and then a list of things she believes about her world in the end. Cleopatra will sometimes act in ways contrary to what she says, or vice versa. When I adapt this, I hope that the characters aren’t perceived as ill-defined, but rather that they have the layers of real, flawed people who go beyond archetypes.”

Gong’s novels are all dominated by strong, complicated female leads. I asked what would happen if the protagonists of each one—Juliette of These Violent Delights, Rosalind of Foul Lady Fortune, and Calla—all had to go on a high-stakes mission together. How would it end?

“In flames,” says Gong. “Rosalind keeps yelling, “The plan! We said we were going to stick to the plan!” but Juliette is already screaming and shooting, and Calla disappeared three corridors ago on a solo mission.”

Immortal Longings is available in bookshops now, but readers will have to wait for the sequel, which is expected sometime in 2024. In the meantime, readers can look forward to Foul Heart Huntsman, the sequel to Foul Lady Fortune and the conclusion of the Secret Shanghai series, which will release worldwide 26 September 2023. You can find out more about Gong’s upcoming novels and tours on her website.

*The quotes in this article are from both the discussion that took place in Birmingham on 12 August 2023, and an email interview completed beforehand.