The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Siren Queen
Siren Queen
by Nghi Vo

Hardcover (10 May 2022), 288 pages.
Publisher: Tor.com
ISBN-13: 9781250788832
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From award-winning author Nghi Vo comes a dazzling new novel where immortality is just a casting call away.

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.

BookBrowse Note: Pre-Code Hollywood is the term used to describe the short era between 1929, which marked the widespread adoption of movies with sound, and 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines (also known as the "Hays Code") came into force.

I

Wolfe Studios released a tarot deck's worth of stories about me over the years. One of the very first still has legs in the archivist's halls, or at least people tell me they see it there, scuttling between the yellowing stacks of tabloids and the ancient silver film that has been enchanted not to burn.

In that first story, I'm a leggy fourteen, sitting on the curb in front of my father's laundry on Hungarian Hill. I'm wearing waxy white flowers in my hair, and the legendary Harry Long himself, coming to pick up a suit for his cousin's wedding, pauses to admire me.

"Hola, China doll," he says, a bright red apple in his hand. "Do you want to be a movie star?"

"Oh sir," I'm meant to have replied, "I do not know what a movie star is, but would you give me that apple? I am so very hungry."

Harry Long, who made a sacrifice of himself to himself during the Santa Ana fires when I turned twenty-one, laughed and laughed, promising me a boatload of apples if I would come to the studio to audition for Oberlin Wolfe himself.

That's bullshit, of course.

What halfway pretty girl didn't know what the movies were? I knew the names of the summer queens and the harvest kings as well as I knew the words "chink" and "monkey face," hurled at me and my little sister as we walked hand in hand to the Chinese school two miles from our house. I knew them as well as I knew the lines in my mother's face, deeper every year, and the warring heats of the Los Angeles summer and the steam of the pressing room.

The year I was seven, my father returned from Guangzhou to stay with us in America, and they built the nickelodeon between our laundry and the Chinese school. The arcade was far better than any old apple, and from the first, I was possessed, poisoned to the core by ambition and desire. The nickelodeon took over a space that had once sold coffins, terrible luck whether you were Chinese, Mexican, or German, but the moment they opened their doors and lit up the orangey-pink neon sign overhead, COMIQUE in the cursive I was having such trouble with, they were a modest success.

Luli and I were walking home one hot day, and we would have kept walking if the tall woman lounging in her ticket booth hadn't tipped an extravagant wink at me. Her skin was a rich black, and her hair was piled up on her head in knots so intricate it hurt my eyes. It wasn't until we got a little closer that I could see her eyes gleamed with the same orangey-pink of the sign overhead, and even then, I might have decided it was too late.

"We're showing Romeo and Juliet today," she said with a wide smile. "If you hurry, you can still get seats."

"I don't have anything to pay with," I muttered, ashamed to even be caught wanting, but the woman only smiled wider.

"Well, it's a nickel if you're ordinary, but you girls aren't, are you?"

Up until that very moment, Luli and I would have given absolutely anything to be ordinary, to live in one of the pastel boxes off of Hungarian Hill, to have curly blond or brown hair instead of straight black, and to have pop eyes instead of ones that looked like slits carved into the smooth skin of a melon.

The way the beautiful Black woman spoke, however, I started to wonder. If I couldn't be ordinary, maybe I could be something better instead.

Maybe I could get into the nickelodeon.

Luli tugged at my hand fretfully, but I squeezed tighter, comforting and bullying at once.

"We're not ordinary at all," I declared. "And we don't have any nickels."

The woman touched a neatly manicured nail to her full lower lip, and then she smiled.

"An inch of your hair," she said at last. "Just one inch for two of you."

"Sissy, let's go home," my sister begged in Cantonese, but I scowled at her and she subsided.

"Just one inch," I said, as if I had any control over it. "And why do you want it, anyway?"

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Siren Queen by Nghi Vo. Copyright © 2022 by Nghi Vo. Excerpted by permission of Tor.com. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Names have a great deal of power in Siren Queen. What does it suggest that we are never told Luli or Emmaline's birth names?
  2. Luli experiences several kinds of love during the course of Siren Queen. How are these loves alike, and how are they different? How do you feel about them, knowing that Luli's relationships with Emmaline and Tara end and that she ends up happy with Jane?
  3. At different times, Luli holds a number of different views about Emmaline Sauvignon. How justified do you find Emmaline's actions? Is she a villain, a heroine, or something else?
  4. The world of Siren Queen features many different forms of magic, from the railroad magic of Luli's mother to the illusions of the studio. What does it mean that Luli has no real magic of her own until the very end, when she reveals a portion of herself that has always been kept secret?
  5. In Siren Queen, there is no doubt that while monsters love, they do not always do it like humans do. What does love mean to a monster like Greta? What about a monster like Oberlin Wolfe? What is your experience with love that doesn't look the way love is expected to look?
  6. The sexual menace of characters like Jacko Dewalt and Oberlin Wolfe is a matter of course to Luli and her peers, calling to mind the modern #MeToo movement. How far have we come since their time? Do you think we've made significant progress?
  7. During some of the most intense moments of her life, Luli feels as if she's standing outside of herself, watching as an observer. What does it mean that in Luli's triumphant ending, she is completely and fully present in herself?
  8. Sacrifice is a deeply personal thing in Siren Queen, from Luli to Greta to Brandt to Tara. What would you give up for immortality? For fame? For safety?
  9. The relationship between Luli and her sister changes several times over the course of the book. How do these changes affect how they see each other, and how might their relationship change further in the future?
  10. The Friday night fires are a hinterland of darkness, a liminal space out of time. How would you keep yourself safe in such a place? Would you go at all?
  11. Luli considers herself cold and monstrous, something that becomes an advantage when she portrays the Siren Queen. Do you think she would still be seen as cold and monstrous if she were a white actress in her time or in ours?
  12. Luli states that Greta's great strength is that she doesn't care. Has caring less ever served you well?
  13. What do you think a modern Hollywood might look like if it was run on Siren Queen rules? Who do you think the great kings and queens might be, and what sacrifices might they have made to gain their power?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Tor.com. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A Chinese American starlet's coming-of-age journey, set in a wildly fantastical reimagining of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Print Article Publisher's View   

"I wanted to change the world simply because I could," says the protagonist of Siren Queen, who charts her journey from a child extra to a Hollywood phenomenon, if not exactly a leading lady, known as Luli Wei. Nothing about Luli's identity, including her name, comes without complication. This is partly because she's a queer, Chinese American actress in author Nghi Vo's alternate-reality version of the Golden Age (1920s-30s) movie business. But as we soon find out, she's not the only one in the industry who has difficulty conforming to its standards. All performers are expected to present a certain image to the world, both on screen and in highly publicized projections of their private lives.

Siren Queen could be said to be based loosely on the life of actress Anna May Wong, similarly to how the world Luli inhabits appears to be based loosely on the world of classic Hollywood that we know. The basic dynamics are much the same — powerful men exploit ambitious women, marginalized actors are pigeonholed into roles that reinforce stereotypes, success has less to do with talent and more to do with negotiation — but Vo's symbolic enhancement of this reality invites elements of horror and grotesque magic into the mix: Studio executives have multiple skins, literal ones that can be shed. A former actress strikes a deal with Luli to help her jumpstart her career that involves drinking the girl's blood with a cup of tea. Luli eventually plays a monster in a pivotal film role, while real monsters and other supernatural occurrences blend seamlessly with humanity on sets, in studios and out in society.

The first-person narration is punchy, with a sly wit reminiscent of classic Hollywood itself — "What halfway pretty girl didn't know what the movies were?" — and a poetic edge. This consistent aesthetic, blended with the book's snappy dialogue, is at times striking in its sheer strange originality, such as in Luli's description of the living space of one Mrs. Wiley, the aforementioned blood-drinker: "There was a riot of green plants everywhere, Eden heaved onto the fourth story."

The dramatic style and fantastical details sometimes crowd out emotional substance, not giving the reader a sufficient entry point into the zigzagging motion of the plot, which covers Luli's formative experiences in Hollywood and her developing understanding of herself and her desires. This is almost inevitable, as the style is so specific as to get stretched at the edges when applied to each and every situation. But when it works in tandem with the character's moments of vulnerability and discovery, it achieves brilliance. One such beautifully written scene occurs when Luli, forced in her everyday life to keep her attraction to women hidden, visits an underground gay bar and is overwhelmed by the first-time experience of her sexuality being the default:

The entire place was veiled with something less tangible than smoke. I watched it all as if I was both in my body and floating above, the one connected to the other only by tenuous string. I sat perfectly still because I did not know what would happen if that string snapped. I was quietly in love with each and every woman in the place, and when I turned to watch my companion, I saw an edge of gold all around her, a dull gleam that warmed me and allowed me to climb back into my body.

Luli's "companion," and one of two main love interests in the book, is Tara Lubowski, a screenwriter with whom she proceeds to exchange flirtatious remarks. Luli refuses to tell Tara her name; when Tara suggests Luli doesn't need a name since there is "only one" of her, Luli points out another Chinese girl at the bar, to which Tara responds, "I meant girls as beautiful as you." Here, and at some other times, the balance of classically cheesy banter and vivid description work together supremely well to convey both a buoyantly playful mood and the intense physicality of the main character's experience — Vo's depiction of the above-mentioned scenario is arguably more erotic and emotionally charged than the book's dedicated sex scenes. So while readers may occasionally struggle to feel invested in Luli and her attempts to navigate the path to stardom, the moments that do garner investment make the journey well worth it.

In its alternate rendering of classic Hollywood, Siren Queen pays tribute to the performers whose identities were compromised or hidden at the time, and reconfigures their existence in a manner all its own.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Booklist (starred review)
In this stellar novel, Vo turns Hollywood into a fairyland—the kind from the old stories, sharp and dangerous—and laces the sparkling silver romance of the movies with a dark, exploitative, hungry greed...Pair that vivid world with the stubborn, passionate Luli and a pace that turns from slow and delightfully sexy to vast and terrifying with the turn of a page and you have the brilliantly searing Siren Queen.

Library Journal (starred review)
Movie magic is made manifest, beguiling, and deadly in Vo's tale about Luli, a Chinese American girl who is determined to realize her dreams of movie stardom...Luli is a compelling character both on and off the screen in this story that takes the mythmaking of Hollywood and transforms it and her into something transcendent. Highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Vo's spellbinding latest solidifies her position as a force to be reckoned with in speculative fiction...[Her] hypnotic prose blends metaphor with magic so seamlessly that reality itself becomes slippery. Her dazzling voice, evocative scene setting, and ambitious protagonist make this a knockout.

Author Blurb Alix E. Harrow, New York Times-bestselling author of The Once and Future Witches
Searing and seductive, Siren Queen is the kind of book that leaves you wrecked on its shores. When I look up at the stars, I'll think of Luli.

Author Blurb Martha Wells, author of Network Effect
Nghi Vo has become one of my favorite writers, and Siren Queen is lush and brilliant, a mesmerizing journey into a pre-code Hollywood that is all sharp edges, with the darkest magic and highest stakes.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Kourtney Reilly
Was ok
Let's start off by I love the name of the book and the blue color palette on the cover. Blue makes it very pretty and anything that says "Siren" catches my interest. Even though it's not about that I'm glad I read it. This book is about Luli Wei a beautiful talented wanting to be a star in pre-code Hollywood. In it she knows how the movie business can be very dangerous but she doesn't seem to be bothered by this. She also prefers to play a monster rather than a maid. She learns the worst monsters of all are not on screen but rather in reality around her in Hollywood. She also learns success always comes with a very steep price to pay and it's never lovely. This book caught my attention from the beginning and is well written. It has an interesting story plot and is one book I'd definitely recommend. Also, reality is just sad.

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Lavender Marriages in Classic Hollywood

Publicity still of Rock HudsonNghi Vo's Siren Queen follows protagonist Luli Wei through an alternate version of historical Hollywood. While many aspects of the novel's world are fictitious to the tune of spells and supernatural beings, it also explores real-life social and political issues of the time and place, including the phenomenon of "lavender" marriages. A lavender marriage is one meant to create the appearance of heterosexuality while concealing the real sexual orientation of one or both partners. The phenomenon is often associated with gay and bisexual actors during Hollywood's classic era (1910s-60s), who were under significant pressure from studios to project a heterosexual image. Marriages for this purpose were even sometimes arranged by Hollywood studios.

In Siren Queen, Luli enters into a secret relationship with another actress, Emmaline Sauvignon. Emmaline, in the meantime, is involved in a public romance with a male actor known as Cassidy Dutch, for the sake of her career. Luli considers allowing herself to be seduced by her co-star Harry Long when he insists on taking her to his house for dinner after a day on set, similarly thinking of the need to protect her reputation. She soon realizes that Harry is not actually trying to seduce her, but has invited her to his home in a gesture of friendship and solidarity; he knows about her relationship with Emmaline and wants her to meet his boyfriend Teo. The studio Harry works for eventually forces him to make public plans to marry an actress named Lana Brooks.

In real historical Hollywood, it wasn't only that stars were pressured by studios to perform heterosexuality; in many cases, they were beholden by "morality clauses." Under these clauses, studios were able to terminate a performer's contract if they engaged in behavior considered socially unacceptable or scandalous. While what is considered scandalous has changed since then, these types of clauses still exist.

One early speculated Hollywood lavender marriage was the 1919 union between silent film actor Rudolph Valentino, rumored to be bisexual, and actress Jean Acker, rumored to be gay. Their marriage soon ended in divorce, and Valentino went on to marry Natacha Rambova, a costume designer believed to have been involved in a lesbian relationship.

One of the best-known cases of a suspected lavender marriage took place between heartthrob Rock Hudson and his secretary, Phyllis Gates, in 1955. Hudson is today widely considered to have been gay, though he never spoke publicly about his sexuality.

Other speculated lavender marriages include that of actress Judy Garland, who may have been bisexual, with director Vincente Minnelli, who lived as an openly gay man before achieving fame; and that of Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Best Actress Academy Award, with costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg. Like Minnelli, Greenberg lived as openly gay for a time, and Gaynor's sexuality has been a subject of speculation.

By their very nature, Hollywood lavender marriages are difficult to confirm. Regardless of what is known about a person's sexual or romantic life, there may always be more that is unknown, and there is often no way to determine how someone defined their orientation or what their marriage meant to them. Siren Queen's exploration of the phenomenon of lavender marriages invites reflection not just on historical Hollywood's homophobia, but also on the broader culture that still puts celebrities in the position of having their private lives scrutinized in the context of social mores.

Rock Hudson, courtesy of IMDB

Filed under Society and Politics

By Elisabeth Cook

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