A Review of Immortal Longings by Chloe Gong
Words By Marizel Malan
*SPOILER ALERT* The following review contains plot details about Immortal Longings.
Once a year, the streets in the kingdom of Talin are bathed in blood and flashing lights as eighty-eight of its citizens fight for glory, riches, and a chance to appear before the king. While King Kasa lives lavishly, never leaving his castle, those living in the kingdom’s capital twin cities, San-Er, have to make do with the dismal conditions around them. For those outside the cities, life is not much better. And so, for many, the annual bloodbath is their only chance at a better life.
Chloe Gong’s makes her adult fantasy debut with Immortal Longings, in which we see the start of a love story inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra blooming in this everyone-for-themselves environment. The first book in a trilogy, Immortal Longings builds an incredible world in which readers squeeze among clustered buildings, run from opponents, and jump from body to body alongside the characters. Gong’s Antony takes the form of exiled aristocrat Anton Makusa, who strikes up a contentious yet compelling relationship with treacherous princess Calla Tuoleimi, herself an evocation of the Ancient Egyptian queen. Though worlds apart in motivation, the two must come together and do all they can to ensure their own survival, a goal further complicated by the presence of Calla’s cousin, August Shenzi. While neither Anton nor Calla truly trust August—or one another—the three of them form a tentative alliance. Their victory is dependent on their fighting skills and the power of their qi, which allows their consciousness to jump from their own body to another’s, roaming around with a different face while keeping their mind as their own. As one might expect, it’s not long before their team falls apart.
What I admired so much about the Immortal Longings universe, and the interactions between these three characters, was how the author created a narrative in which the readers could easily insert themselves. Chloe Gong describes each environment so well it felt as though I was sitting next to the characters: jumping with Anton between bodies, scheming to overthrow the King alongside August, and trying to keep my identity a secret just as much as Calla. I could clearly imagine the bustling market stalls, the close-pressed apartment buildings, the overcrowded, clinical yet uncaring atmosphere of the hospital Anton visits, and Calla’s sparse apartment that serves as a reminder she is still on the run. As the omniscient narrator shifts their focus from one character to another, Gong highlights that even the best-laid plans can fall apart when you encounter something that matters to you as much, if not more, than your initial cause.
Alongside this, the novel also beautifully focuses on the disconnect people can often feel with their own bodies. In Talin, jumping from one body to another is not uncommon; even though the practice is technically illegal, those with a powerful qi will always take advantage of its possibilities. Some, like Anton, abandon their birth bodies forever, while others never jump, like Calla, even though she does not feel like herself in the body she’s inhabited her entire life. As readers learn more about the process of jumping, the power one needs to either possess or lack, and how easy it is to be invaded, we see how physical bodies are meaningless to some and vital to others, and how a spiritual body can hold far more value. The novel demonstrates that a birth body can be just as foreign as a stranger’s body, and that many people prefer to choose the body they live in rather than keep what they were assigned. Calla herself thinks about people who were born in bodies of a sex or gender that is not truly their own. The act of jumping can relieve them of the pain—both emotional and physical—they experience in their birth bodies. Though brief, Calla’s thoughts remind us how many people in the world outside the book are stuck in bodies that do not truly feel like their own.
Though I was slightly disappointed that Calla was willing to compromise what she fought for in order to keep Anton in her life, I admired how determined she was to stay true to her herself while allowing her guilt and isolation to recede enough for love to become an option. Calla truly falls in love with Anton but knows that if she doesn’t kill the King, nothing will change. While their love distracts her from her task a bit, she remains steadfast in her belief that she is the only one who can truly bring change to the twin cities. And even as we root for her and Anton’s love story to end in anything but blood and flames, Chloe Gong has made us long for a better life for the citizens of Talin, the same life many long for in the real world too.
With elements of historical fiction, an incredibly strong and independent female main character, and supernatural abilities linked to the origin of the universe, this is the perfect read for those who adore their fantasy and historical fiction told from the perspective of the underdogs. While the romantic relationship takes a backseat in this story—even if it does influence Calla’s choices somewhat—I found it incredible how the novel focused on the strength of individuals, their reliance on their identity and physical body, and the difference an unexpected friendship can make. There is no doubt that I will be gifting myself multiple copies of this book, recommending it to anyone who will listen, and anxiously awaiting the second and third books while re-reading the first. In my opinion, Chloe Gong has achieved something often missing when writing a series: the creation of a world and characters so awe inspiring, you never want to leave the pages.
For more on Chloe Gong’s work, read Dani Hedlund’s interview with the author.