What would you do to become immortal? For Luli Wei, the daughter and granddaughter of Chinese immigrants in California, the answer is: Anything. In the bright and sunny days of 1930, silent movies are out and talkies are in. From the first moment she sees her first movie, Romeo and Juliet, at a small nickelodeon in Hungarian Hill, Luli’s life is changed. The looks of adoration and devotion, the dramatic unfolding of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the death of love itself give birth to a burning passion and a need. A hunger. An aching want that will take Luli from her parents’ laundry to the backlots of a small studio and her first role. It was a bit part. An urchin with a single line, but that line changed everything.
Siren Queen is the fictional memoir of Luli Wei, who is altogether unpleasant. She is arrogant, vain, and narcissistic. She is cold and distant, slow to admit a liking or a fondness. That’s not to say Luli lacks empathy, but her sympathy for other people is a small thing, shared only with a small handful of close friends. She is ruthless, clinical, calculating, and utterly self absorbed. She hides her fear, horror, and despair behind a shield so cold you’d think it was a mile thick rather than the fragile, brittle thing it is. And when she loves, Luli is like the sun, wanting to share her light with everyone. And she is proud.
When signing herself away to Oberlin Wolfe, the monstrous king who rules over Wolfe Studios, Luli has three rules: No maids, no funny talking, and no fainting flowers. She knows what she wants, which is to be a star. And she will take no role that will diminish her light. Unfortunately, it also limits what the studio can do — or is willing to do — with her. Three years is all the time she has in her contract, and when that time is up, she will either fade away or ascend with the immortals.
I have never read any of Nghi Vo’s work before this book. Her writing is lush and rich, fluid with description and mood. From Oberlin Wolfe’s office where Luli bargains for and wins her future, to the dusty, hot, and crowded sound stages, there is no part of this world ignored or overlooked. Vo brings to light the fires at night where stars hold court and the Wild Hunt stalks the darkness, the cramped dormitories where Luli and Greta (her first and truest friend) live in between lessons and work, and the grand house in the Palisades where she and Emmaline Sauvignon (her first love) share their nights.
Merging magic of Old Hollywood with a fae court, complete with fae bargains and fae lords and ladies, is such a perfect idea and one so perfectly brought to life. From the silver wolves that guard the gates to the keeping of — and losing of — names, it all just works so well. And while this story has all the hallmarks of an adventure, with Luli finding her footing in a magical court, the focus is more on Luli herself. Her strength, her drive, her determination to get what she wants without sacrificing herself … all while being a lesbian woman in Hollywood where the studio that owns her could destroy her with a single word. Even with the threat of Oberlin overhead, Luli will love who she wishes and feel no shame.
This book is beautifully written. It’s one of those books where I knew, from the first page, that I would love it. (And I did.) This book has everything I wanted it to have: A strong character, intricate world building, consequences for actions — both good and bad — and it is a love story. More than the women Luli loves, both as friends and lovers, and the man who saved her career, this is the story of Luli Wei’s true love for herself. As a woman, as a lesbian, as a sister, a lover, a daughter, and a friend. And it is beyond beautiful.