Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
Published by Tordotcom
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Literary
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After the penetrating reality of displacement in An Unlasting Home I opted to change reading direction and dive into fantasy. My choice, Siren Queen, led me deep into a 1920s Hollywood that was at once recognizable, but darkly surreal. A world one young American Chinese woman is desperate to be a part of, but only on her own terms.
This premise alone gives Nghi Vo plenty of material, but by making the novel a fantasy she takes Siren Queen to the next level. Hollywood is one big cauldron of black magic, run by men who chew through actresses and actors alike. The goal is not to just become a star, but to have control over one’s life, something very few achieve.
For Luli there is no other choice. Her family runs a laundry in Los Angeles, onerous work that keeps them one level above abject poverty. As Chinese they’re unwelcome in much of LA and so seldom venture out of Chinatown. But she has no such qualms. She acknowledges that from the moment she saw her first silent movie she was “poisoned to the core by ambition and desire.”
She goes beyond dreaming of the world of movies to actively making it happen—hanging out on sets, working for free as an extra. Luli finds an old actress who, for the price of 20 years off her life, tells her how to get into the office of the biggest studio head of them all and how to get him to give her a contract. What she doesn’t share with Luli is what might happen if she succeeds.
Vo builds a multilayered, vivid world of the debauchery of 1920s Hollywood, when starlets were drugged, the casting couch held sway, and bright young things were used up and tossed away. Except in Siren Queen’s world the metaphors are real. The chosen young women literally burn with an incandescent glow that slowly dims as they’re wrung out. Nothing is real. Bodies, teeth, accents, everything is scrubbed, reshaped, and magicked into what the moviegoing public wants to see. The only way to survive is to decide which of the pipers is the right one to pay.
My only issue is that building such a multilayered stage, so replete with details, means momentum can be lost in the story. Vo’s descriptions of Luli’s world are visceral in their descriptiveness, but while she is fighting for her life, the urgency doesn’t translate into velocity on the page. Instead, there is a languid feel to her movements that meant I was able to pick up the book and put it away for days. I never lost interest, but neither did I tear through the novel.
This results in a disconnect between the intriguing nature of the story itself and the languor on the page. Because Siren Queen is compelling. It’s not just about the superficialities, but the very realness of discrimination against race and sexual preference in Hollywood at the time. Luli quickly learns everyone has a secret and as she fights to reach her dream she realizes she is even more of an outcast than she originally thought.
From there Siren Queen ripples out into darker and more insidious magic until reaching an apex where screen stars are bartering their souls away for beauty and fame. Uneven pacing aside, Vo creates a fantastical parable that expands on what was a corrupt system, rigged by men in power to stay in power.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Tor in exchange for an honest review.*