Genre: Fantasy / Historical Fiction
Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, fatphobia, violence, family violence, homophobia, sexism, drug abuse, addiction
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: Hollywood glamour and monsters that lurk in the shadows or behind human faces
He got closer, and his hands came up. I wanted to move back, to run, but I couldn’t, couldn’t. He had given something up in those early days, whether he remembered it or not, but I could see the space it left in him, a hollowness where something else had come to live.
Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen is the tale of how a new kind of monster is born in old Hollywood. And while our scene may be set in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Vo never lets us forget that it’s less a solid, pure gold than it is a kind of gilded rot. The big movie studios are rife with exploitation, and the wannabe movie stars are ripe for exploitation. Among them is our narrator, whose name is sometimes this and sometimes that, though she finds fame as Luli Wei. Luli is a queer Chinese American woman, and we first meet her as a reckless child, dazzled by the silver screen and wedging her way into the outskirts of the movie business. As she grows into adulthood, she gets herself tangled up in the sinister side of cinema, striking a deal with a monstrous studio head who can make people disappear as easily as he can elevate them to fame. Luli is an ambitious and complicated protagonist that you won’t always love or even like, but that’ll only fuel your need to find out where she ends up by the end of the book.
Siren Queen is lush with whimsical fantasy elements. It’s not at all inclined towards the rigid magic systems that you’d find in a high fantasy, though, so readers who prefer everything to be explained according to set rules might want to skip this one. Instead, Vo leans into the kind of magic that is varied, mysterious and exists simply because it does. It’s reminiscent of magic realism and based heavily on European fairy stories and folklore. As someone familiar with all those traditions, I loved seeing them reshaped to form cinema’s dark underbelly. In Vo’s world, cameras feed off the talent standing before them, and actors and actresses who truly ascend to stardom are immortalised as actual stars. It’s fascinating to see fairy logics like the Wild Hunt, courts, and the power of true names integrated into the everyday happenings of the movie business (even the Lindworm makes an appearance).
Wonder and whimsy aside, the magic works best when Vo uses it as a metaphor for the horrors of Hollywood. It’s sometimes so reflective of the rumour and speculation that clouds the movie business in real life that metaphor and reality start fusing together until it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Blood sacrifices to keep the big studios running and monsters that lurk inside men . . . not so far-fetched after all.
Another aspect of Siren Queen that I enjoyed was Vo’s representation of individuals from marginalised communities carving out spaces for themselves in an industry that is deliberately hostile. Racism, sexism and homophobia colour Luli’s experiences, and her struggle to stop them from defining her altogether is treated with thought and care throughout the book.
I appreciated that, while Luli is stubborn and holds steadfast to an idealistic kind of identity-making, Vo doesn’t try to demonise other BIPOC or queer characters who make decisions that might be considered less courageous, but which ensure their safety and allow them to provide for themselves. This led to a realistic exploration of the many roads people paved to occupy space in Hollywood’s early days, even if it was a cramped and claustrophobic kind of space.
I’ll briefly mention here that a pet peeve of mine is when authors identify every BIPOC character by their race but don’t do the same for white characters. This is the case in Siren Queen. Take that as you will.
The book is split into three ‘acts’. I adored the first act, and I consider it five-star material. Unfortunately, I found that the pace slows in the second and third acts, and the story takes to meandering rather than following any central plot. If I had gone into this expecting it to be more of a literary read than a genre one, then perhaps I wouldn’t have felt let down in this regard.
It also seems like Vo set us up for higher stakes with the introduction of darker entities more powerful than the studio heads. This fizzles out into nothing more than a few brief mentions, and two out of three of the big studios are largely irrelevant, which was disappointing.
Hidden in the second act is a trope I really, really dislike: instalove. Luli’s first love interest, Emmaline, doesn’t do much besides be pretty before Luli risks it all for her, and she remains a rather flat character thereafter. Luli’s second love interest, Tara, is little more than the skeleton of an interesting character. I much preferred spending time with Luli’s roommate, Greta, and her co-star, Harry. There are also plenty of interesting secondary characters, including Luli’s sister, Mrs Wiley and Oberlin Wolfe, who aren’t given enough room in the story to reach their full potential.
Overall, I definitely don’t regret my time in the world of Siren Queen, and I rate it 3.5 stars. Vo’s magical Hollywood studios are worth a dip into this book, as is Luli’s ascension to a version of herself that she fashions on her own terms, captured forever on the silver screen.
“You’ll be the heroine, of course. And I’ll be the monster. And it’ll be a hit.”