by Nghi Vo
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 26, 2022
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Thanks to Edelweiss for the advance e-book in exchange for an honest review. I won't go into much detail because I want to minimize spoilers. Nghi Vo is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and I'm looking forward to another book coming later this year. Siren Queen is set just before, then after the advent of "talkies" in Hollywood. Written in first person from a future perspective, I'm sure the narrator never gives her real name, but she later adopts another as her screen name. A Chinese-American girl whose parents own and operate a laundry, she frequently delivers to their clients. One day she stumbles upon the set of a movie in production, at a very opportune moment. The lead actress notices her, and suggests to the director she should be the beggar girl who approaches her on the busy street. Given a few lines to speak, all that comes out in her nervousness is a woeful "pleeeease," but in just the right tone as to suggest true need and suffering. She is paid two dollars and invited to return when she can, perhaps other small parts can be found for her.
There is magic here, and mayhem. It may even be set in the same world as her previous novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, an alternate take on The Great Gatsby. In that one, several people who had made pacts with demons sported a fingernail painted black, which the girl notices on the hand of Oberlin Wolfe, head of the studio. Most people know of tales of the predatory nature of producers and directors, but in this case it is because they are real monsters. Even some of the actors and actresses are too, or have the opportunity to become one. Then again, some might not be possessed by supernatural entities, but that doesn't make them any less monsters. She deduces how the director Jacko intends to shape her career, but she defies him and walks away. On her own she gains information as to how to approach Wolfe. She becomes Luli Wei, adamant in refusing parts as maids or other subservient positions, eventually rising to co-star (as the villain) in a series of popular films that begin with Nemo's Revenge. Before her acting career, Luli had gone to cinemas as often as possible, and had embraced the notion of the magic on the screen. Her younger sister (the real Luli) felt exactly the opposite, in fact I think she believed an actress who died on screen actually did die. She wanted no part of that, instead pursuing a career in art. She had to take another name since her sister had stolen hers.
Lots of other actors, actresses, and movies mentioned, some of which I thought might be real, but as far as I could determine they are all fictional. An earlier Asian actress, Su Lin Tong, could have been inspired by Anna May Wong. Luli has several romantic relationships, including one that is still active at the time of the writing. All were other women, Luli not attracted to men at all, even though she did become close friends with her co-star before his disappearance. Achingly beautiful prose, vivid characterizations, and emotional dialog, all within a story fraught with the perils of being a woman, especially a woman of color. No matter the dangers, Luli was not going back to the laundry. She would either thrive as an actress, or accept defeat, even death at the hands of monsters, but not without struggling with every ounce of her strength. And possibly becoming a monster herself. This gets an overwhelmingly enthusiatic recommendation.
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