Gary K. Wolfe reviews Siren Queen by Nghi Vo – Locus Online

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mermaid queenNghi Vo (Tor 978-1-25078-883-2, $26.99, 288pp, hc) May 2022.

From Nathanael West to Tim Powers, viewing Hollywood as some sort of hallucinogenic hellhole of ambition, lust, corruption, and betrayal has almost become literary convention, both in fiction and non-fiction. While most Hollywood history novels succumb to the temptation to name-check actual movie personalities, even if only as extras, Nghi Vo mermaid queen returns to the narrative strategy of West’s classic grasshopper day, inventing all the characters while maintaining the main lines of the cinema. Although set primarily in 1930s Hollywood, Vo’s novel never mentions any actual movie stars or producers, or indeed any historical figures; even events such as the Chinese Exclusionary Acts or the Depression are only mentioned in passing. Nor is the novel a kind of novel key. While we can probably draw parallels between Vo’s central character Luli Wei and that of early Chinese-American star Anna May Wong, and while Vo’s three competing studio moguls inevitably suggest characters like Thalberg, Mayer and Selznick, the hermetic and haunted Hollywood of mermaid queen is really Vo’s own territory – and it’s a pretty scary place.

We first meet Luli as a young girl living with her sister and parents over their laundry, sneaking to the local cinema whenever she can. Stumbling upon a real filming location in 1932, she finds herself recruited for a brief role as an extra, and even meets a Mexican-born movie star, whose “exotic beauty” roles are a foreshadowing of Luli’s later challenges. . She catches the eye of a predatory director named Jacko and essentially blackmails him into arranging a meeting with powerful studio head Oberlin Wolfe. Luli’s resistance to stereotypical roles limited her early career, but she eventually rose to fame as a monstrous Atlantean serpent-lady called the Mermaid Queen, in a series of films that credibly resemble Universal efforts of the time. . If she finds allies and possibly lovers – a friendlier director, a Swedish actress who becomes her roommate, an ingenuous starlet with whom she has her first love affair, a screenwriter forced to hide his identity behind a male pseudonym –, she also learns that trying to negotiate a career as an independent-minded queer Asian-American woman is only part of the battle. Hollywood, it seems, is tied to all sorts of dark forces and eldritch practices, from apparent human sacrifice to literally becoming a star in the firmament above Los Angeles.

Simply based on his memorable characterization, elegant style, and a highly detailed sense of place, mermaid queen could very well work as a mainstream novel. Vo does not put it more in the foreground at the start besides elements, and readers who think magic systems should be laid out like Ikea diagrams might initially feel a bit at sea. But Vo’s rollout of fantasy is refreshing and ecumenical. Luli’s own mother, for example, has a few tricks all her own, like creating ghost dolls using a combination of Chinese tradition and Colorado “mountain tradition.” This roommate of the Swedish actress turns out to be a Skogsra, a sort of forest spirit born with a cow’s tail (which the studio cruelly amputated). Union workers employ colorful aliases for fear of what the studio might do with their real names, while Daphne Grove turns out to be not an actor, but a haunted wood. More importantly, powerful studio boss Oberlin Wolfe is possessed by ‘something much older and much less human’, and much of the power brokering takes place not in offices, but in fires. Friday night rituals where actors and directors create their own often magical courts. Needless to say, these disparate elements begin to converge with each other and with a culminating moment in Lilu’s career in a smash-hit conclusion that should satisfy everyone in terms of spectacle, but more importantly serves as the cornerstone of the quest. pursuit of self-determination. this makes Lilu, a multiple underdog in a rigged system, one of the most appealing fantasy heroes of recent years.


Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Surveys (2006 BSFA Award; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo candidate 2011), and Comments (2011), and his The evaporation of genres: essays on fantastic literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Previous books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Prize, 1981), Harlan Ellison: On the Edge of Eternity (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and david lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic 1950s Novels in 2012, with a similar set for the upcoming 1960s. He received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His series of 24 lectures How Great Science Fiction Works appeared in The Great Courses in 2016. He received six Hugo nominations, two for his critical collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for over 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.


This review and others like it in the May 2022 issue of Venue.

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