I started on Nghi Vo’s work with books one and three of the Singing Hills Cycle, and after a pair of five-star ratings, it was clear that I needed to give her novels a try. The only question was where to start. And in the absence of an overwhelmingly popular answer, I chose the new release and picked up a copy of Siren Queen.
Siren Queen tells the story of Chinese-American actress Luli Wei’s quest to break through in Old Hollywood. But with literal monsters running the studios, she must face more than racial prejudice in her pursuit of stardom.
Perhaps that’s a short plot summary, but it’s appropriate for a plot-light story that takes Luli from childhood through the years up to and eventually beyond her breakthrough. There’s not really a clear central part, but rather a central character, with the novel more like a fictional memoir than anything else. And, as I’ve come to expect from Vo, it’s beautifully written, with evocative film descriptions and a dreamlike quality in the character and setting that blurs the boundary between exposition and metaphor. It’s also an easy read, coming in under 300 pages with an approachable writing style.
And to be honest, the beauty in the storytelling is enough to carry it, even for someone who isn’t especially enamored with Hollywood tales. But for it to hit the level of the Singing Hills novellas, it needed another element. And without much central plot, that element had to be the lead. And the lead is absolutely well-drawn, with clear goals and plenty of hurdles to reach them. But despite the quality of the writing, she doesn’t quite reach the level of fascinating, which prevents the novel from making the leap from good to great. The pursuit of fame isn’t sympathetic enough to work as an “underdog against the world” story, but her moral compromises don’t reach the level needed for her to work as an antiheroine willing to stop at nothing to reach her goals. And stuck somewhere in the middle, she makes for an interesting read that yet isn’t especially gripping.
Of course, prose, plot, and character aren’t everything, and I’d be remiss not returning to the portrayal of an exploitative film industry, with the figurative monstrousness of those in power supplemented by the literal. If there’s any theme hit hard and consistently, it’s this one. But this is an aspect where the dreamlike narrative sometimes works against it—blurring the line between the metaphorical and the real creates a less visceral reading experience, and the lead’s position outside the power structures results in some situations where she doesn’t even know the true horrors happening behind the scenes.
All together, it’s a book with real flashes of brilliance that’s absolutely worth a read, but not necessarily one to clear your reading schedule unless you have particular interest in the era or the style.
Recommended if you like: Old Hollywood, beautiful prose, fantasy memoirs.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Standalone, Historical SFF, and it includes Shapeshifters. It’s also a 2022 Release by a BIPOC Author, whose title contains No Ifs Ands or Buts.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.