Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

“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.

Publication details: 10 May 2022 by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I love books about Hollywood. I don’t necessarily care about a lot of real life celebrities, but I love fictional ones, and I find Hollywood a fascinating opportunity when it comes to storytelling, because there are so many interesting ways to explore character dynamics within that environment. What makes the high price of fame so worth it? What would someone be willing to do to achieve stardom? And how do we reconcile questions of authenticity and the commodification of personal brands?

There’s no doubt Nghi Vo is a talented writer, but Siren Queen feels like a wasted opportunity when it comes to these questions.

On the positive side, the writing is wonderfully atmospheric, and really captures the other-worldly feel of Hollywood; it feels like watching Luli’s story unfold through hazy cigarette smoke. It’s almost impossible to tell where metaphor ends and reality begins, which mostly works well for this type of story (with a few noted exceptions): in a place that’s always aiming to create the biggest spectacles possible, Vo’s approach to storytelling fits in well.

I also like that this book acknowledges that while the annals of Hollywood are largely white, the industry is built on the backs of people of colour and other marginalised groups who made movies possible, even if they weren’t recognised for it at the time. It’s an important nod to a sometimes forgotten history.

But, for all that, I’m not sure I really enjoyed this book. And that’s because, in a larger than life setting like Hollywood, Luli feels far too bland a character to warrant her story being told among so many others. The book tells us a lot of things about her background and her experiences, but it never really explains why she wants to be a star, or why she’s prepared to put up with being treated like dirt for her shot at the big time. Fame is a means to an end for the story, which is based around Luli telling the reader how she got to where she did, but it’s never really a defining part of the story itself.

Similarly, the blurb for this book makes a big deal about Luli becoming monstrous, but that’s rarely backed up by the text. Other people lie to her and discard her when she’s not valuable to them… but the reader never sees her make any hard choices of her own, or have to truly face up to the consequences of her actions. During the worst stuff that happens in this book, Luli’s largely a passive bystander. Like I said, I love stories about people who make difficult decisions in the pursuit of fame and fortune, so I felt really let down by this part of the book.

Even the literal monsters we do see – the Hollywood executives who call the shots – feel rather toothless in Luli’s version of events compared to some of the horror stories that have come out of the #metoo movement. Part of that is the flipside of the lovely writing style – ruining people’s careers feels less confronting when you can’t quite tell if it’s metaphorical or literal – but largely, it’s as though Siren Queen feels more committed to the Hollywood aesthetic than the reality.

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