Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
2022’s Siren Queen by Nghi Vo is another 5-star read. Set in the same world as The Chosen and the Beautiful, Siren Queen looks at the magic of movies, and the exploitative studio system of the medium’s early days. In Vo’s world, the magic of movies is real magic, and that magic is often hungry.
Our main character is a Chinese American girl in Los Angeles who becomes enthralled with the magic of moving pictures. Soon, a director picks her up as an extra, and he starts using her more and more frequently. Her father disapproves, but her mother sees that the family needs the money. When our protagonist is given a line to speak in a film, she feels the magic envelope her as she speaks, and knows this is what she wants to do with her life. The question is, can she do it on her own terms? The entire system is arrayed against her.
Luli Wei is not our character’s name, but it is the one she chooses, once she has found her way into Wolfe Studios. All of the studio heads have made magical deals, and the lots themselves are steeped in magic. Luli makes a demand of Oberlin Wolfe, based on what she has seen of the roles given to other actresses of Asian heritage. “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.”
Most of the story is set during the two years of Luli’s contract. Magic is everywhere, ranging from transactional to predatory (there are stories of the early movie cameras consuming people). Neighborhoods celebrate Day of the Dead when ghosts of loved ones come back to visit. Magic can be frightening, as are the two “dolls” Luli’s mother makes of her and her sister, to fool their father; or terrible, when the price for magic (or knowledge) is moments — or years — off your life. For me, the most eerie and seductive magic described in the book is the Friday campfires in the studio backlots. They say that if you walk far enough back you walk out of time into the place where Los Angeles magic started.
The studio heads, in particular Oberlin Wolfe, wield other powers than magical ones; the power of the contract, for instance, and their manipulation of — or collusion with — the entertainment media, as they spin fantasies of the lives of their most famous performers. Luli runs afoul of Wolfe when she helps her roommate save the man she loves from Oberlin’s magic, in a passage that echoes the Tam Lim folktale. At first, Luli has protectors, and her surprise success as “the siren” in a creature feature movie seems to insulate her from the wrath of Oberlin, but her contract is ending, and there is an abrupt shift in power when one of Luli’s allies leaves the studio. Her relationship with one of the studio’s stars (“stars” are different in Luli’s world) ends badly, leaving her isolated and helpless, except for the power of her will.
Luli’s voice is honest, witty, and blunt. She doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a bad light, just as she doesn’t hesitate in the story to do selfish things, craven things, to get what she wants. She comes across as a real person, obstinate, smart, loving and strategic, in a world where nearly nothing tilts to her advantage. Against Luli’s acerbic, world-weary voice (the story is told by her, looking back on this part of her life) the lush strangeness of the magic, and the magic of movies, provides an otherworldly harmony.
I could go on, but I would be repeating myself. This is a five-star read. If you love movies, tough female main characters, alternate history, or magic, you owe it to yourself to read this.