*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.
Immortal Longings is my adult debut. So there were a lot of big thoughts I was having about what is it that makes an adult concept different to a young adult concept. I had to make a conscious decision to make the switch. My instinct growing up and writing books was always to go for young adult, because it was what I was reading. It was the type of genre categorization that I knew best. Whereas when the idea for Immortal Longings first struck, it was the first concept I worked with that I knew that didn’t really fit into that coming-of-age story arc. There was nothing about it that felt like a teenage story anymore. I think that was because I came up with the idea when I was in my senior year of college. It was still the midst of Covid. So, I had come back on campus because doing zoom school was horrifying and bland. And the time zone was terrible; I didn’t go to class. My professors let me skip class because my professors were like “oh you’re in New Zealand.” And it also meant I was not learning a single thing. So, I came back for senior year and during winter break I was alone in my school housing apartment because everyone went home for the holidays. It gave me the idea of working with a very dense city setting, I guess because I was so isolated. Thinking about what it means to live with people literally breathing down your neck, that presence of breathing down your neck at any point. It was that feeling that first came to me as a story idea.
I had always been very inspired by the Kowloon Walled City that was torn down in Hong Kong in the 1990s. I had always wanted to work with some sort of fantastical story to do with that. I had originally been playing with a portal fantasy that didn’t work and then some other fantasy in YA that didn’t work, and I threw them out. Finally, for this I was thinking what if I made an adult setting because I am exploring a dense city setting and the bad aspects that come with it if there is a system ruling over it and the very human things that come with trying to survive in a place. That just kind of erupted into the world and then that joined up with the fact that I had debuted into YA with Romeo and Juliet and I had taken a Shakespeare class sophomore year, where I really, really loved studying Antony and Cleopatra. I thought there’s something very meta about using the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare tragedy cannon, but Antony and Cleopatra are so firmly adult. They are about power and obsession and grappling with the sort of the tug and pull of love. So, there was a lot of like, “ooh, I am going to make this so that the books are in conversation with each other just like how Shakespeare’s plays are in conversation with each other.”
Very early on in the book when you’re describing the setting it’s as if the setting is its own character. I found it fascinating that you built the city where it is so tight and there’s suffering, but there’s no relief because there’s not enough oxygen to create relief.
Given that San-Er was kind of based on the Kowloon Walled City, it is the exact same kind of thing, because there is no space for civil unrest, it is another arm of an oppressive system that just kind of goes “well, that’s too bad.”
What was it like to grapple with an inspiration that is so unruly that critics can’t even decide what it is about.
I think I decided I wanted to pluck out the character study between Antony and Cleopatra first and foremost. People can’t even agree if it is a tragedy. Is it historical? There are so many aspects about it. Shakespeare is doing so much in the play. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet where the themes are blatant. I was fascinated by comparison essays I was reading about Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. That led to an idea of meta type engagement as well, because I was reading an essay about how Antony and Cleopatra are essentially the adult versions of Romeo and Juliet but, as what happens when you reach adulthood, things suddenly become so much more complicated, right? Not that children’s lives aren’t complicated, but in a way, your coming of age is very much funneled down into one simple sort of self-discovery type goal. Whereas you reach adulthood and it’s suddenly about nation, it’s about interpersonal relationships, it’s about everyone around you. So, it was the characters of the play that fascinated me the most.
Not to say I don’t love the intertwining of history as well. Like I really love the rise of the Roman Empire, which is why there are kind of bits and pieces that find their way into the world building of Immortal Longings. Whenever I pitch it, it’s the 90s of Hong Kong meets the rise of the Roman Empire. People are like, “what does that look like?” Well, we’ll see! You know so history made its way in through those aspects, but as far as the inspiration of Antony and Cleopatra is concerned, it gravitates towards the interpersonal relationship between Antony and Cleopatra or how the other characters, it’s not in the play so much, but Octavia the wife he left behind and his relationship with Augustus and then Octavian and Cleopatra’s serving woman and all those little character interactions are my favorite parts of the play. When I wanted to adapt it, it was like “how do I make those little characters feel like the source material but plucked in a completely new environment?” to kind explore, like, what would they become if you completely merged that around.
Talk to me about your writing process. Are you the kind of writer who is like “okay, I’ve gone through the entire play, I’ve outlined exactly how it’s going to line up with my new plot and then I sit down.” Do you sit down and let the characters come to you?
A bit of both, I think. I’m a very chaotic writer, but I’m also very orderly. By that I mean, before I get into a first draft, I have everything very organized. My planning document for Immortal Longings is 20 pages long, because it’s the outline of the play, outline of my story, outline of every inspirational subtext that I’ve got going on, and then it’s basically the outline of everything I want to have happen in the further series. But then I’ll write the book, I’ll get everything into its base shape, and then I throw it all out. I need to do it first just to see what works and what doesn’t. Because when I visualize it as an outline, sure it works, it kind of makes sense to lay it all out, but the magic I love about writing is that sometimes things just work and sometimes they don’t. You don’t know what that will be until you do it. I don’t really discover what the story is trying to say until I’ve done it once, and I see that things are not corresponding as they need to. And I kind of rip it up and do a second draft. And that second draft tends to be what I’m trying to say, and then the further drafts I’ll clean it up, and so on and so forth. But I need that chaotic tearing a book apart stage most times, sometimes there’s a structured book, and I don’t tear it apart that much, but I find that’s rarer than not.
How much of that first draft do you actually end up keeping?
I tend to start fresh. I open a new document, but I’ll put the old one next to it. So, I will pull lines and paragraphs. Because the writing is still there. But I need the new document, so I don’t feel married to the old structure. Because I found that if I keep that old document in and edit within it, I will kind of wimp out sometimes and just let the things sit in their old structure. But if I open a new document, I can be like well these chapter orders don’t work at all. So, I’ll tear it apart and start again.
Your word-by-word writing is extraordinary, it’s lucious, it pulls you in. Is that something that comes through in the first draft and you know your voice immediately?
I do think my word by word tends to mostly come in the first draft. I think partially because I have been writing for so long now that it is a bit easier to get what I want to say out there into the sentence level form. When I was first setting out when I was much, much younger there was kind of a discrepancy between what I saw in my head and what eventually I put on the paper because I just wasn’t as practiced yet in describing the things that I saw in my head. But now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I think, the first go at it gets a bit close. There will be bits where there are just pieces missing, where I’m like “that doesn’t sound quite right but let me just put it down first.” So, when I do the second draft migration I tend to go back, I’ve got a fresh pair of eyes, because of the first draft. I’ll never go back and edit the first draft, I’ll either do it all again and I’ll go back. So, by the time it’s the second draft it’s probably been a few months since I’ve seen it and I can see what I was saying there now and I can kind of adjust the words slightly. But I would say that most of my wording, if I am keeping it, probably remains as is.
You mesh so many genres in this story, you have historical geo-politics to fantasy to monarchy systems to sci-fi. Did all of those ideas come together in outlining?
I’m a cross genre writer. Even with my young adult books I have always been doing that. So, with These Violent Delights I originally pitched that as just a historical and it was later on that I was talking to my agent and she was like “no, we can cross this as fantasy, you have a monster rampaging the city.” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, you’re right.” These Violent Delights is historical sci-fi, and then Foul Lady Fortune, even more so, is a historical sci-fi thriller, which, I found that when you throw too many genres at people, their eyes kind of glaze over. So, we were like “yes, this is YA fantasy” to kind of tidy things up. It is kind of the same with Immortal Longings. It is pitched as my kind of official adult fantasy debut, but there is so much about it that is, it feels different than what you expect when you say, “I’m picking up a fantasy novel.” I knew from the get-go that I wanted the world to feel like something 90s inspired, there was technology, but there is not technology that we recognize for our modern day. There is a magic system of sorts, but it’s not magic, it’s genetic. It’s something just that is part of their world. So fantasy is kind of just the little slot that it falls into because it has the sort of archetypes.
So much of your work is deeply tied to what makes someone them. How does identity exist in this world? And what was it like to explore identity when you can literally discard your body?
To me it was this investigation into how different people value their identity as it ties to personhood. It’s a reflection of our world where people don’t jump around, you just have one body, but I still think that sort of spectrum exists and is reflective of how people perceive themselves. Some people think of their mind as who they are, and they don’t care about outer perception. Other people are very very sensitive to external perception.
What do you think you would do if you could jump bodies?
I don’t know if I would. I might be a Calla. I might be somebody who is really stuck to myself. If I had to, would jump into any random man in the street, I just want to see what it was like.
Do you think you would choose a stranger over someone you knew?
If it’s someone I knew, I’d be controlling them, and that’s weird. A stranger, they never have to know.
How did the transition to adult feel for you as a writer, versus your preliminary work? Did it feel easier? Was it harder? Was it unexpected?
On a craft level, I wrote the book in my usual voice. So, I don’t think it was particularly harder than any of the other manuscripts that came before it. But on an emotional level, it was hard, because I had a lot of self-doubt. Because I switched to adult and since I was still writing it at 21, it gave me a huge, crippling sense of imposter syndrome. But I was just really, really going through on a personal level, like, am I enough of an adult? Do I know how to do my taxes? Which led to this new step in my career, where I was like “oh god, am I going to be able to do the adult genre?” So, I just had to do it; I just had to take the dive. I knew the story couldn’t be young adult, it just wouldn’t work, that kind of atmosphere is not something that feels like a teenager would care about it. I think it’s something very many adults care about more. So, I need my audience to be adult. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun getting that freedom to write for adults. I love writing for young adults, but there’s always a little box that I kind of refuse to step out of, because there are certain things that I don’t think are as interesting to teenagers. When you write for an adult sphere, and you can get a bit more morbid. The same way that growing up kind of unlocks a box for you to think of the world a different way. It was a lot of fun but also very scary.