REVIEW: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
From award-winning author Nghi Vo comes a dazzling new novel where immortality is just a casting call away
It was magic. In every world, it was a kind of magic.
“No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.
But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.
Siren Queen offers up an enthralling exploration of an outsider achieving stardom on her own terms, in a fantastical Hollywood where the monsters are real and the magic of the silver screen illuminates every page.
CW – anti-Asian slurs, fantastical type self mutilation, homophobia
Dear Ms Vo,
Like last year’s “The Chosen and the Beautiful,” “Siren Queen” explores the themes of otherness, queerness, feminism, and acceptance but this time the setting is the Golden Age of Hollywood in which our heroine must do battle for her chance at stardom with the actual monsters who run the studios.
She is the daughter of a second generation Chinese immigrant who married a Chinese immigrant. Together they run a Chinese laundry (which I’m assuming is a deliberate choice of stereotypical business) and have two daughters. The eldest discovers the silver screen during the last gasp of the silent film era and after stumbling onto a film set years later and being cast in bit parts, she’s determined to become a star. There are lots of things against her including her ethnicity and the fact that studios are run by actual monsters. Oh, there’s nothing said in movie magazines about this but everyone knows it and knows that there is a price to be paid for even a chance.
Clever and determined, she discovers whom she must talk to and after meeting with that woman (and giving up twenty future years of her life in exchange for the information) she works out a plan then boldly executes it. Given a contract by one of the studios, she first needs a name and the only one accepted is one that is already owned but Luli Wei is willing to take that, too, to achieve her dream. Moving onto the studio grounds she starts to remake herself while working out the dynamics of the world and people around her. There are wild parties and “hunts” each Friday night and on Halloween an annual sacrifice is offered to something even more evil. Can she claw her way up, find stardom and a lover while keeping her soul?
Once I began reading the book, I noticed that things were dragging a bit. As it started when “Luli” (we never learn what her actual name was) was a child and I was expecting immediate Hollywood, it was a good 20% into it when things began to pick up and get interesting. At this point Luli began her scheming and dealing with the (white) devils in charge. There was a tense scene in which she auditioned for and finally got her contract. At this point when she moved onto the studio lot, the narrative slowed again.
A lot of things at the studio must be explained, many new characters were introduced, and most of this was done by telling instead of showing. There was a shit ton of telling. This introduced an intricate world – some of it gorgeous and some of it boring but all of it lengthy. The magic realism was sprinkled randomly throughout the book. Some was important but a lot was tossed in more as background which took me out of the story to try and understand it. Whatever it was, it was all treated as ho-hum, to be expected, and almost nobody reacted to it no matter how awful it was which blunted any horror I felt I should be feeling. Perhaps that was supposed to be part of the horror – that these characters knew the price to be paid and steeled themselves to do that but it felt flat.
Where I felt the novel exceled was when it was examining being seen both as a minority and as queer. In the book, there was a famous ethnic Chinese actress as well as a famous Black actress both of whom had to play stereotypical roles. Luli was determined not to play the roles that Su Tong Lin did and her vocal denunciation came to the attention of the Black actress who chided Luli for “not wanting to play a maid.” She then told Luli about all the property and businesses that the money from her most famous role (“That little idiot made me a rich woman.”) had allowed her to buy and that Susie had paid for her sister’s education, her father’s medicine, and socked away money playing the only roles these women were caste in.
Luli finds herself initially being cast in small “exotic” roles before her big break as something that isn’t a maid but which she discovers her Asian American fans cling to in order to see a fellow Asian as a star. What her fans would never see is the fact that during her audition for the titular role of the mermaid/siren queen, in order to get into the part, Luli crawls across the floor (she’ll be wearing a large rubber “tail” during the shooting) and only when she finished the reading, realized that she was literally on the floor in front of three white men. Little bits like that slip the knife in and drive home how demeaning at times it can be for Luli to reach for her dream of being seen (at all in real life much less on the big screen) rather then invisible because of “being alien and foreign and strange even in the place where she was born” and not blending into the background as her parents and most other immigrants have done.
There were several other queer actors and crew working for the studio though none were out. Luli had a brief affair with an actress who had an studio arranged relationship with another actor and she was friends with an older gay actor who was faced with a “lavender marriage” also ordered by the studio. She also almost pulled the walls down on all of them and crashed her relationship with Emmeline by helping a friend escape the studio. They could be queer but they couldn’t be reckless or anger upper management too much or be too open about relationships or visiting queer roadhouses. I liked that different queer characters navigated this homophobic world in different ways as they felt they had to.
Despite the fact that the book makes many wonderful stabby points about these two issues, I ended it feeling that if the magic was taken away, I would have enjoyed the book more. This is a very character centered story. Much of the narrative meanders around and paragraphs later I would realize that nothing had really happened. Plus the magic and some of the characters came off as flat. But Luli was someone I was rooting for even if at times I didn’t like her truculence much. She had a dream and a goal and darned if she didn’t power through and get them. And the villain roles are always the most fun to play. B-/C+