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Siren Queen by Nghi Vo


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Siren Queen

by Nghi Vo
May 10, 2022 · Tor.com
Science Fiction/FantasyUrban Fantasy

CW/TW

TW: blood, threats of sexual assault, homophobia, racism, patriarchy, allusion to threatened child molestation by a parent, violence, fire

Oooooh, folks, if you have ever thought, “I’d like a book about Pre-Code Hollywood, please, but make it queer, add magic and a dollop of horror, and have the main character be a Chinese-American lesbian who stars in monster movies as a killer mermaid,” then first of all I would say, “Wow, that’s very specific!” and then I would say, “Luckily here is the book RIGHT HERE!” because Siren Queen is pretty amazing.

Our heroine, who doesn’t give the reader her birth name for excellent magical reasons, grows up in a struggling neighborhood in Los Angeles. Her mother is of Chinese ancestry but was born in the United States. Her father is a recent immigrant from China. When our unnamed protagonist sees her very first movie (for a nickel!) she becomes completely focused on movies. When she wanders into a shoot that happens to need a kid for a brief role, she seizes an opportunity and follows it, adopting the name Luli Wei and using both magical and mundane means to establish herself in Hollywood with the rules: “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” But Hollywood is full of danger and if Luli wants to achieve immortality on the screen without losing her identity and agency, she must be very, very careful.

This is a richly atmospheric story that seamlessly, and often horrifyingly, incorporates magic and fantasy into the world of Pre-Code Hollywood, a time period in which pretty much anything could happen on and off screen. This era lasted historically from the widespread adoption of sound in movies to the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934. It was the era of unashamedly sexy women, ‘heroic’ gangsters, and lavish musicals that featured a lot of leg. It was also the era in which Universal Movie Studios made some of its most iconic monster movies, including Frankenstein and Dracula (both released in 1931) and The Mummy (1932). Siren Queen uses this juxtaposition of sex and violence to examine how an ambitious Chinese American actress might find a niche in Hollywood that allows the people in power to “other” her (Luli is nothing is not pragmatic) but still allows her to have roles with power and agency (even though, in their own way, these roles are also problematic).

Hollywood is probably scary enough without adding magic, but the supernatural elements add an enormous amount in terms of horror and in terms of showing why people crave fame (they can literally become stars, eternally reigning over nighttime fires, walking amongst us lowly humans, and looking down from the heavens, forever). While the element of magic, as wielded by studio heads, can be used against women to devastating effect, magic also gives the women in the story some weapons and tools that they would not otherwise have, thus allowing them to achieve their goals.

It is possible to read this book in many different ways. It is a tragic story of racism, as Luli is denied the scope of roles offered to White actors and forced to play a monster (she plays a siren in a series of movies). It is also a triumphant story of subverting racism, as Luli is able to maintain her casting demands ( “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers”). She enjoys the power and agency that her siren character possesses and the stardom that it brings. The book can be read as a sad story about homophobia (many people in Hollywood that Luli befriends are queer, and all are, at least officially, in the closet, which take a toll on relationships). But it is also a happy story about a lesbian woman who has healthy relationships with a femme movie star and a butch screenwriter before having a happy, if unofficial, marriage to another woman. The complexity of the characters and their various situations makes the book satisfying as something you could read again and again and interpret differently every time.

In interpreting the book, it’s important to discuss the ending, and Luli’s feelings about her choices:

So does this have a happy ending, or what?

Luli wants to achieve immortality through her films, and by embracing her role as a siren she achieves it, becoming an icon to audiences and a mentor to the next generation of rising stars who are queer and/or people of color. She follows her siren roles with a series of other roles, but is always most famous for her role as a siren. For Luli, this is a story of unapologetic empowerment and triumph over a patriarchal and racist system that tries, and fails, to erase her.

This is a book that just shimmers with movie magic and with fantasy magic. It’s short but completely immersive. I was completely caught up in Luli’s story. I also had a fun time traveling down an internet rabbit hole as I looked up pre-Code movies and the life of the first Chinese-American female movie star, Anna May Wong.

While I think Siren Queen will be especially beloved by movie buffs, it can be enjoyed by anyone. I loved the atmosphere, the relationships, the main character, and the integration of magic into the setting and the theme. Two thumbs up, as they used to say!

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