She falls in love with the movies first. Wanting to be a star comes later.
Even though it’s hard to see herself–a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill–in any of the pre-code films that immediately captivate her, it’s easy to picture herself on the big screen one day. The impossible part is imagining any other life for herself.
So she makes her way through productions as an extra alongside the changelings with more experience and less to lose. She courts attention from the studios gambling that she’ll one day have a place of her own in the skies above Hollywood. She learns how to bargain for her own chance at success without anyone trying to ride her coattails. She starts to speak for herself before any man decides to put words in her mouth.
She steals her own sister’s name and remakes herself into Luli Wei.
But getting in with the studio–choosing a new name–is only part of the journey. There’s also the training. Navigating the fires. Hiding the realest parts of yourself so the studio can make you whoever it needs you to be.
For a Chinese American girl like Luli, there’s also avoiding all the easy shortcuts the studio wants her to take. To be a maid. To talk funny. To play a fainting flower. To do any of the obvious things Luli refuses to attach to her new name.
The studios all run on ancient magic–blood bargains that would just as soon chew Luli up as bring her to the top. She has always known the risks. Every hopeful starlet does. They all think they’ll be the one to beat the odds.
Luli does too. She also knows something the other starlets don’t. She knows that bargaining with monsters sometimes makes you into one. That’s a chance she’s willing to take if it means getting everything she’s ever wanted in Siren Queen (2022) by Nghi Vo.
Siren Queen gives Hollywood’s golden age the fantasy treatment, reinventing the studio system that dominated Hollywood film production into the 1950s as a dangerous playing field populated by fairies, spirits, and dangerous bargains.
This deceptively straightforward story about chasing fame also offers a thoughtful commentary on navigating identity in the public and private spheres as Luli falls in love (and lust) for the first time and begins to learn that being a queer woman in the 1940s will have consequences for her career and her ambitions. This theme is followed to different conclusions with the main plot, with Luli’s first love interest (another actress who spends most of her career passing), and through the character arc of one of Luli’s first friends and mentors–an actor who has unmistakable allusions to Cary Grant. The siren films–which become defining aspects of Luli’s career–also offer nods to the now cult classic films from producers like Val Lewton and special effects forerunners like Ray Harryhausen.
Vo plays well with structure giving Luli’s story the three acts common to most movies and also playing with the narrative voice (second person for most of the story) leading to tantalizing questions of what will come next for Luli.
Siren Queen is a love letter to old Hollywood and an allegory on the rewards and possible perils of choosing your own path. Luli Wei’s quest for fame and immortality is one readers won’t soon forget.
Possible Pairings: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Only the Dead Know Burbank by Bradford Tatum, Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner, The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*