ARC review: Siren Queen, by Nghi Vo

I’ve enjoyed every Nghi Vo story I’ve read so far, so I was very excited for this novel! Thank you to Tor Dot Com and Netgalley for giving me this free eARC in exchange for a fair review!

The Synopsis

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.

The Review

So far what I’d read from Vo were her two Asia-inspired novellas, which were a lot like fairy tales, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. I’d say Siren Queen is more of a cross between The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Last Night at the Telegraph Club, with added magical realism.

It’s very much about the experience of a Chinese American girl in the 1930s, racism, sexism and all. It’s very much a story about queer Hollywood. And, also, a story where “all the myths are true” and fae and monsters roam the studios of Hollywood and you gotta make bargains – with your voice, your talent, sometimes your body parts or your life – to get anywhere.

I found it very slow, in a positive way. It’s a book you want to read bit by bit and see more of this world unfolding. And you never truly know as much as you’d want about any of it. I don’t think the narrator knows everything she wants to know. I really enjoyed the fantastical atmosphere and the idea that anything (mostly something terrible) could happen at any time. The prose is lovely as always with Nghi Vo, and I may not have liked Luli as a person but I enjoyed seeing her develop as a character, and seeing where she was going next. I also had no clue where the story would go next, or how it would end, the whole time. I like a book that keeps me on my toes!

And throughout, this idea of queer joy that I love so much, despite the rough context of the 30s and despite the fantastical horror: queer characters embracing who they are, even if the world around them would see them as monsters – and grab what joy they can get. I don’t know why queer joy and this kind of horror mix so well but they somehow do.

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