Siren Queen by Nghi Vo (The Chosen and the Beautiful), published by TorDotCom, releases May 10th, 2022. Firstly, I am going to be completely honest when I say this is one of the best books of the year. It’s breathtaking in its exploration of magic. A system that is unlike anything I’ve ever really read before. Immorality is seemingly gilded in Siren Queen, but it’s a sinister reflection of the wants and desires of people obsessed with making it in Hollywood. That is the backdrop for the setting and atmosphere of this novel.
Luli Wei is our main protagonist and she is a poor, immigrant Chinese woman from an impoverished home on Hungarian Hill, California. Like any lost and confused kids, Luli finds hope and dreams through the arts, specifically through the big screen. I was a poor kid from a home of immigrants, so I know how coping through art can do wonders for instilling the hope that maybe life will be like what you see in the movies. Maybe I didn’t grow up in the 1930s like Luli, but I understand the confusion and hurt felt when you start to realize how society treats you differently. Luli sees her way out of her poverty, her lack of quality of life, and her way to the fame she knows she deserves by forging her own path into Hollywood through magic.
Vo’s depiction of magic and abuse is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. Luli sells years off of her life in order to become beautiful, to appease a society that views her as lesser because of her Chinese origin. She feels deep shame in where she comes from and how she lives and is willing to give anything to be successful. It’s really haunting to read prose describing the plight of an Asian American woman attempting to detach herself from the racism and xenophobia of the world. Vo’s writing is lush, emotive, and transformative as Luli’s struggles turn into rage-fueled ambition. Mixed with Siren Queen being a slow-pace burn, the novel is atmospheric and intoxicating to read.
Vo’s prose opens readers to a world that’s so beautiful, yet also grimy. Luli sees firsthand the monstrous nature of magic, immortality, and Hollywood on her quest to stardom. The magic of Hollywood showcases that people sell their lives to hide aspects of themselves. Some women may have tails like cows, men may have a crooked smile, and people may have the ability to create fire, yet they suppress themselves to hold onto power over others. Luli recognizes this and instead, chooses to carve her own path. It’s enthralling to read Luli’s journey. She tries time and time again to be the main character and the men in power continuously suggest that she could never be anything but a doll for them. She fights her way into doing a role that will bring her success. She says, if you want me to be a villain so badly, then I will be and I’ll do it best. She lands a role as the Siren Queen in a slew of Hollywood films.
The sets bring their own set of magic to Vo’s novels. There’s so much attention to detail and incorporation of literal magic in this version of Hollywood. Cameras are known for stealing pigment off of people’s skin to make them more appealing to the limelight, contracts are sealed to lock in love and fame, and after-hours work parties are fire-filled hunts and the underbelly of magic. Luli navigates corporate sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia all while behind the lens of a camera.
Despite these hardships, she learns about love and discovers her queerness. in Hollywood. She is able to find others like her who have carved paths for themselves. It turns out that the arts cannot survive or exists without the aid of people of color or queer people. She finds friendships with closeted gay men who have to live in secret otherwise their riches and fortune will be taken from them. So many tabloids are sold hetero-normative couples to appease society. However, Siren Queen showcases that queer people are everything and they exist to find happiness like everyone else.
What I love about Vo’s writing is how authentic and wonderful the existence of lesbians and queer people are. I see myself and my friends represented. The love that Luli has for the different types of women in her life is extraordinary and riveting to read. I blasted through this novel because I wanted to keep up with Luli and her struggle against fighting the big bad wolves of Hollywood and their grip on the marginalized actors and actresses who work for him. I love how dark this novel is and how it honestly portrays how terrifying it is to be complicit in a system that does not value you at all.
Vo’s story is hopeful and full of light, even among the darkness. The way she has crafted this story is beyond recognition. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Siren Queen because Vo is one of the best voices in literature right now and nothing can compare to her magic touch.
Siren Queen is available for purchase now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.
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