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.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Tordotcom. All thoughts are my own.
By this point, I’ve firmly decided that Nghi Vo cannot write a bad book. Or even a just alright book. Siren Queen was all I wanted and more., Literary and luscious, dripping with Old Hollywood glamor underlying the menacing seductiveness of a fae bargain to stardom gone wrong.
Siren Queen follows Luli Wang from her start as a young Chinese-American chasing stardom at every nook and cranny. The plot is relatively straightfoward (see previous sentence), but where this book shines is the magical quality to the world that Luli exists within. The reader is slowly introduced to the idea that bargains may hold just a little more power than in real life, and slowly we’re unveiled a world fueled by devil’s bargains, seductive nightime fires, and possibly supernatural beings, with a nonplussed magical realism quality.
Luli, I will imagine, will not be a particularly likable character to most readers. She lies and she cheats, manipulates where she needs, and cuts throats to her way to the top. But like all top actors and celebrities, Vo has given Luli that it factor that makes it impossible for a reader to turn away. It’s those unlikable actions, that pragmatic determinism in such a brutal environment, that really drives her towards the success she chases and Vo is unrelenting in exposing all aspects.
One thing I love about Vo’s writing, in both Siren Queen and her previous work, The Chosen and the Beautiful, is how she approaches anti-Asian racism. Namely, the way her characters are able to carve out that little space of existence to be comfortable enough.. 1930s Hollywood (granted, even modern Hollywood) is rife with racism, and Luli is forced to confront this from her first day on set. But there is no great climax, no one moment of triumph upon which The Racism Is Banished Forever. Because real life does not work like that. We watch Luli fight tooth and nail for roles, play into stereotypes when it benefits her position, struggle and fail, like Asian Americans every day are forced to do. Vo writes with a beautiful nuance to her characters that I have yet to see matched in the SFF canon.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Vo has delivered yet a gain, with the whimsy and glamor of Old Hollywood at its peak, yet exposed the dark underbelly of loaded fae bargains and devil’s deals. The writing, as always, is literary and lush, and I’m just in awe with the nuance Vo incorporates in Luli’s approach to the racism she faces.
r/Fantasy 2022-23 Bingo Squares:
- Historical SFF (hard mode)
- Published in 2022
- BIPOC author
- Title sans the, a/an, and, or, if , of, but
- Features Biological Family Ties