Nghi Vo’s 2022 Siren Queen is a stand-alone novella.
A Chinese-American girl passes by a moving picture theatre, the Comique, as she walks from home to school and back. This is her first exposure to the magic of the movies, still in their infancy. Presented with the opportunity to work in film, if only as an extra, she jumps at the chance.
Movie magic is very literal magic. It can cost movie folk everything, even their birthname (as is the case with the protagonist). But the actress the world came to know as Luli Wei was willing to risk everything to become a star.
Most would-be stars never approach true fame. They are the fuel the system relentlessly uses up and discards without a second thought. Luli is a naïve newcomer, destined to consumed and discarded, when she begins acting. But luck and a would-be mentor save her from becoming one of Hollywood’s victims.
Jacko gives Luli her first big chance and protects her because he believes that she can give him a boost in her turn. (He is the one eventually discarded as she rises higher.) He gives her an in with the great Oberlin Wolfe. Wolfe is a far greater monster than Jacko but a niche at Wolfe Studios is a sweet enough prize to risk dealings with Wolfe.
Hollywood expects its actors to fit into tidy boxes. There are not many boxes for Asian actors, particularly women. Luli finds none of these roles attractive, most particularly the roles as doomed losers in a romantic triangle. Other Asian-American actresses have taken these roles rather than never appear onscreen at all. Luli sees this box as a trap and is determined to avoid it. She is relentlessly practical.
Or at least she is in matters not relating to her personal love life. There, she is simply determined, despite the potential cost.
This is a period piece (set in the 1920s), a fantasy in which people literally sell their souls for success. The unlucky and the foolish are sacrificed to dark forces; contracts are enforced via means more powerful than mundane law. Simply being adjacent to someone who signed a contract can bind one. That name the protagonist uses? Stolen by magic from her sister.
As one would expect from any arrangement involving humans, the rules appear inconsistently applied because the one true test is “is this person powerful enough to get away with what they want to do?” Thus, A‑list stars can sleep with whoever they like, until they’re no longer A‑list, when what had been acceptable becomes ammunition to use against them. Well-placed producers may never be subject to any consequences for minor peccadillos such as human sacrifice.
I should note that the outcomes of this system are not notably worse for actors than they were and are in actual Hollywood. Predators naturally gravitate to positions of power, whatever the source of that power. Legal consequences only come into play if through some misfortune their grasp on power slips.
As one might expect, many of the characters in this novel are unpleasant. It’s just as well that the book focuses on a protagonist who, while having a very clear vision of what she wants and what she will do to attain it, is not one of the novel’s monsters.
One of the pleasures of this book is Nghi Vo’s enchanting prose. As I expected, having read other books by Vo.
I was sorry to end the book; I wished it had been a little longer.
1: Covid is never going away, the Democrats are going to lose the midterms, and Doug Ford is going to get re-elected, unless WWIII breaks out in Ukraine first, so I refuse to defer gratification.