Illustration by Pat McDonald, Creative Commons
NB: If you read this book, there will be spoilers for Chloe Gong’s first duology, These Violent Delights. I do my best to avoid spoilers for all of Gong’s books in this article.
Chloe Gong draws on her own Chinese heritage and her English degree in Foul Lady Fortune: a retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, set in 1930s Shanghai. When her life is saved by an experimental drug, Rosalind Lang (who takes her name directly from Shakespeare’s protagonist) becomes immortal, possessing a supernatural healing ability. Four years later, Rosalind is putting her new abilities to use as an assassin. Her code name: Fortune. Her latest mission: to investigate a series of murders while posing as a married couple with her new mission partner, Orion Hong (the Orlando-equivelant character).
Gong interlaces her Shakespearean-fantasy plot with the events of China’s civil war and the start of the Japanese invasion, while also addressing the lasting damage of European colonialism in 20th century Asia. Amidst the conflict, Rosalind and Orion are working for the Nationalist government while their respective siblings, Celia and Oliver, are Communist spies. With the almost equivalent divide amongst the main characters on either side of the war, Gong writes a nuanced and informative piece of historical fiction about the beginning of a calamitous period in Chinese history.
Gong also writes amazing LGBTQ+ representation in her main cast, including demisexual and asexual characters, two groups which I have rarely seen in popular fantasy literature. The queer characters are clearly affected and shaped by prejudice directed at them, however their arcs do not focus solely on this. For example, Celia is a trans woman but conceals that she was assigned male at birth from most people. However, her love interest Oliver already knows this when the book starts, allowing their story arc to be about the Shakespearean romance rather than a coming-out narrative.
On first impression, this novel was not as much a Shakespearean retelling as an original story. It included some similar names, the same romantic pairings, and a few Shakespearean-themed code words used by various spy characters. While originality is not a bad thing and my own expectations might have hindered my experience (I picked up this book after reading Gong’s Romeo and Juliet retelling), if you are naming all your characters after Shakespeare’s and inserting quotes from his plays, I expect there to be some similarity in the plot. However, as I revisit certain scenes, some familiar themes from As You Like It begin to emerge, primarily the complex relationships between estranged family members.
Like Shakespeare, Gong employs the motif of the father figure, showing Rosalind, Orion, and their siblings’ frustrating relationships with their fathers. Rosalind feels that her father never supported either herself or her sister, and has found a new parental figure in her mentor, Dao Feng. Yet, she still dreams of a better relationship with her father. Meanwhile, the sibling relationships mirror the Shakespearean ones. Rosalind and Celia demonstrate the same iron-clad loyalty, prioritising each other above their political affiliations, while Orion and Oliver are constantly at each other’s throats. However, forgiveness is also a major theme in As You Like It, and I wonder if we will see this in Foul Lady Fortune’s sequel, with Orion forgiving his brother and some of the characters making amends with their parents.
Rosalind’s code name references another motif from the play: changing fortune. Like their Shakespearean counterparts, Rosalind and Orion come together when they are both “out of suits with fortune” and recovering from a shattered family dynamic. Also like Rosalind and Orlando, they interact under the pretence of a false identity (when they meet, Rosalind is using the name “Janie Mead”). They have a relationship trajectory which is a favourite of the young adult genre: the flippant playboy meets the serious young lady, and after being forced together by circumstance, they bond while slowly revealing past traumas. The moments where these traumas emerge are poignantly written, especially in the case of Rosalind reflecting on past heartbreak.
Rosalind soon meets Orion’s freewheeling sister Phoebe; Phoebe and Orion are both bi and are always stealing each other’s partners (although Phoebe doesn’t have a crush on Rosalind, which seemed like an obvious plotline to me). Shakespeare’s Silvius becomes Orion’s best friend Silas, who is also a Nationalist agent (code name: Shepherd. Wink, wink, English majors). A modern audience might sympathise with Shakespeare’s Phoebe given that Silvius relentlessly pursues her, despite her clear disinterest in him. Gong’s Phoebe may initially seem unlikeable because she knows Silas pines for her and seems to enjoy the attention. Silas himself is the loveable geek, if a bit of a pushover. Gong’s approach to these characters is certainly interesting, but I am withholding any final judgements on whether Phoebe has lived up to her potential until I read the next book.
Rosalind and Orion’s colleague Jiemin (the “melancholy Jaques” character) is considerably younger than his Shakespearean counterpart, becoming a sarcastic, introverted eighteen-year-old, who I found to be oddly entertaining and relatable. The fact that this sombre character is involved with multiple plot twists and wins the award for quoting the most Shakespeare only made me like him more. Finally, I enjoyed the scenes with sweet but stubborn Celia and hard-edged but kind-hearted Oliver. When they first appear, they have already been working together for years and trust one another completely. I love Celia and Oliver’s romance in As You Like It because of its sheer simplicity, so I appreciated being introduced to them with a pre-established relationship.
The story was engaging if a bit confusing, which I find often happens with espionage plots. However, like with her other writing, Gong perfects urban fantasy by including supernatural elements which are intriguing but not overwhelming. If you are expecting a plot structure based on Shakespeare’s play you may be surprised to find that it is a loose retelling – although this book may only cover act I, and its sequel will open with Rosalind leaving Shanghai, where some familiar scenarios may play out. I’m still very much hoping that a version of Orlando hanging bad poetry all over the trees emerges.
To Gong’s credit, As You Like It does not lend itself to retellings as well as Romeo and Juliet, mostly because it does not have as many recognizable plot beats. Oxford University’s own Emma Smith says in her podcast that “an easy answer to the question, ‘What happens in As You Like It?’ is: Not very much.” The Forest of Arden has been argued to represent a meditative space of healing, but one which is not particularly substantial, and after two hours of doing nothing significant, the characters must return to the real world. This poses the question: why would Gong choose to adapt this particular play?
I, for one, am eagerly awaiting future interviews with Gong to see what she reveals about her inspiration. While the story is still unfinished and though I have many personal hopes for the sequel, Foul Lady Fortune was undoubtedly an enthralling read which addresses serious political and social issues.
Final rating: 8/10.
Visit Chloe Gong’s website to learn about her past and upcoming novels: https://thechloegong.com/.