Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Siren Queen

Nghi Vo
Completed 7/4/2023, Reviewed 7/5/2023
3 stars

I was disappointed in this novel after reading the first three books of Vo’s Singing Hills series.  Beginning with The Empress of Salt and Fortune, it was gorgeously written and beautifully imagined.  While I thought Siren Queen was well written, the imagination was a little flat.  The book is a take on ‘30s era Hollywood, with its young stars and starlets, but infused with real monsters, not just the basic Harvey Weinstein kind.  It’s narrated by a young, queer, Asian-American woman who will do anything to become a star, even become a monster herself.  I think my issue with it was that the narrator had a stoic, disaffected persona.  She hardly let anyone get close, even when she fell in love.  You might say that that’s how she kept going in the harsh world of the Hollywood studio system, but it also prevented me from having much empathy for her.  Still, it’s a good, brisk read.  I finished this book in two days.  

Luli Wei grew up during the depression outside Hollywood to a family that owned a laundry.  When a movie theater is built, she saves her nickels to go.  When she doesn’t have any money, she lets the ticket taker cut an inch of hair and take a few years of her life for admission.  One day, she happens upon a movie set and the director takes her for a one-line role in his film.  Soon, she is getting regular, but tiny screen appearances.  When she turns eighteen, she gets into a studio with a three-year contract.  It’s on her terms: no Asian stereotype roles.  But she finds that it is not an easy place to be an out queer Asian-American woman in a racist, homophobic industry.  Even worse, she also finds that the success of the studios has to do with blood and sacrifices, human sacrifices.  

My favorite part of the book was the beginning.  I really enjoyed watching Luli grow up wanting to become a movie star, and then actually landing small, walk on roles.  When she finally gets a contract with one of the big three studios, it becomes less interesting for a while.  It didn’t pick up for me again until Luli finds her first love.  Then things get interesting.  We find out more about the human sacrifices and Luli lands a major role as a siren of the sea.  However, once she got to the studio, I lost the empathy I had for her as a child.  She keeps her distance from most people, including the reader.  

I think another thing that had me lost was the world building.  The magic system and monsters are all very vague.  There’s a lot of it, but it’s not clear how it all works.  I think I like my magic a little more well-defined.  I got a little lost in what was real and what was not.  Were the ghosts of the dead ancestors real?  Was the taking of years off your life real?  After reading enough of the book, I realized, yes, it was all real, but it did not seem well integrated into the world.  Whenever it popped up, I was surprised and a little hesitant rather than immediately accepting.  I guess I couldn’t suspend my disbelief very well.

I give the book three out of five stars.  It never quite came together for me.  It lacked the warmth I look for in a book.  Instead, this was cold and dark.  I won’t give up on Vo though.  I’m looking forward to the next novellas in the Singing Hills series and will probably read the next few novels she comes out with.  I really like her prose.  And I think she comes up with interesting ideas.  But in this book, they weren’t quite put together as well as I would have liked.

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