Siren Queen by Nghi Vo is a book that takes the magic of Hollywood quite literally, weaving pagan ideas into the glitz of the early silver screen era. It follows the movie star dreams of Luli Wei as she tries to make a place for herself as a Chinese American queer woman. Luli and the reader learn that the legends and lore of Old Hollywood are disturbingly real. Witches, LGBT+ folk and film buffs alike should enjoy Luli’s journey, from coming of age to standing tall and demanding a place in the world. Hell, I’m none of those things and I still thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Vo has an impressive ability to build a scene, mood and all, with just a few sentences. Having just come off two books with heavy description (Age of Ash and Last Exit), it was refreshing to see a different style used so effectively. As seven year-old Luli watches her first movie at the nickelodeon of her working-class LA neighborhood, you can feel both the hard wooden bench and the sense of wonder in her. The hot California sun transposed with literal and metaphorical darkness sets this novel firmly in a place and time that you can feel even though it happened 90 years ago. Vo’s descriptive style gives the entire novel a magical realism feeling, with fantasy low-key infused into every element of the world.
Names have incredible power in this world, with Vo adding a witchy slant to the idea of a stage name. I call our protagonist Luli Wei, but that isn’t her birth name, which is never actually said in the book. As the book is told in first person like an autobiography, never knowing her true name lends a power to the protagonist. She keeps a piece from us even though we are “in” her head. In Luli’s world, to hold somebody’s name means to hold the power to change the essence of their being. Movie magnate Oberlin Wolfe uses the power of names (and other arts) to control his studio and the people in it. Contracts don’t just chain actors to the studio legally, they do so with blood and dark power. Even with all that, Luli wants to be part of the movie magic.
Luli makes for a compelling protagonist, incredibly sure of what she wants from the world and rarely letting anything, be it her ethnicity, sexuality, or powerful men’s opinions, get in her way. Anything but the blushing ingenue, Luli maneuvers her way into a contract with Oberlin Wolfe with a few important caveats: no maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers. For a while nobody knows what to do with her, because if you can’t horribly exploit someone how can you put them in a movie? But Luli finds her place, and begins to find people like her, LGBT+ folks existing however they can, finding whatever power they can. One of the best things about this book is the variety of ways people approach surviving in a world that hates them, it felt very grounded in real people’s behavior. Siren Queen also features some pretty excellent sex scenes, hot and sweaty without being overly graphic or featuring too many fluids.
Immortality and the balance of time are major themes of the book. Luli’s father’s family is “in the business of immortality,” and before coming to America were apothecaries and sorcerers. She reminisces fondly about a tortoiseshell cabinet full of traditional medicines that her father would use to make cures for other old men. Luli’s mother was born in America to railroad workers and raised her daughters to believe that immortality wasn’t just for men, that things were different in America and anything was possible. As a child Luli sells inches of her hair (two months of her life) to the ticket taker at the nickelodeon to see movies. To get insider knowledge on the industry, and help for her friends Luli trades years of her life to a witchy former star who herself gave up her own feet to be free of the studios. The denizens of the studio are constantly jockeying, manipulating and betraying each other to reach the vaunted immortality, the literal stardom that will help them transcend the bonds of time.
Siren Queen is out May 10, 2022 and would be a fantastic summer read for teens and adults, or anybody who was really into the “You Must Remember This” podcast. Thanks to TorDotCom for providing us with an advance reader copy.