The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

The Queen of the Night


That didn’t go AT ALL like I was expecting it to.

I saw some reviews of this floating around on Goodreads a few weeks ago, and when I decided to look up a plot description, it sounded like everything I wanted from a novel. The story begins with Lilliet Berne, star soprano of the Paris Opera, being offered an original role in a new opera. But as she reads the story, she realizes that the opera is based on her own life, and exposes secrets from her past that she wants to stay buried. There are only four people who know Lilliet’s secrets, and she decides to find out who’s working behind the scenes to expose her. As she does, the reader follows her on her journey and learns how Lilliet went from orphan farm girl, to circus equestrian, to courtesan, to imperial spy, and ended as an opera singer.

Based on that description, this book should have been my absolute jam. Opera singers! Belle Epoque Paris! Intrigue! Affairs! Courtesans! These are all things that I love, yet I did not enjoy a single page of The Queen of the Night, and I still can’t figure out why.

Nothing in this book worked for me. Other reviews praised Lilliet as an awesome heroine; I found her dull. Sure, it was impressive the way she consistently wiggled her way out of one scrape after another (her best escape is stolen directly from The Count of Monte Cristo, and I’ll forgive the absurdity of it because I love a good Dumas homage), but there didn’t seem to be any spark to her – it was just five hundred pages of “oh, now I have to deal with this. Well, that was a close one.” Maybe the problem was Chee’s prose, which struck me as very dry and removed – I wanted narration that threw itself whole-heartedly into the fantastical aspects of this story, and was willing to have a little fun with it. Chee’s writing takes itself way too seriously, and as a result, I couldn’t commit myself to what should have been a melodramatic adventure story.

The other major problem was the antagonist. At the beginning of Lilliet’s career as a courtesan, she is purchased (literally purchased) by a man she refers to only as “the tenor.” But he might as well be named “the patriarchy” because his job is to remind the reader of how thoroughly it sucked to be a woman in the 19th century. Sure, fine, I can get behind a malevolent john character when Lilliet is starting out. But then the tenor refuses to go away. Every time Lilliet escapes him, he just reappears a few chapters later and she’s forced back to square one, and by the time this had happened three times, I was beyond bored with the tenor. He has nothing to redeem himself to the reader, but isn’t evil enough to be a compelling villain. Instead of being interesting, he’s just tiresome.

But the biggest problem is Lilliet herself, and the role she plays in this story. It’s disheartening that, in a 500-page novel, our supposed heroine never really gets to be anything other than a victim. She’s a victim of the tenor, she’s a victim of her employers – Lilliet is early Sansa Stark, and it was frustrating. Like, I get that this is 19th century France and we can’t exactly have her charging around with pistols or whatever, but give her some goddamn agency, for Christ’s sake! Lilliet is reactive rather than proactive, and it makes her a lame excuse for a heroine. She never really gets to be in control, in a book that is supposed to be her story. Instead, she just bounces from one terrible scenario to another, constantly being manipulated and controlled by others.

Oh! And I almost forgot to talk about the romance element, which elicited only eye-rolling from me. So when Lilliet is working as a servant (and spy) in the Emperor’s household, she meets “the composer.” (He gets a name later on, but not before I got my history mixed up and thought he was supposed to be Mozart, so for most of the book I was sitting there laughing and thinking did Chee really just…?) She sees him playing, they have A Moment, then they fuck in the garden and poof! It’s true love.

I never, for one second, found this romance interesting or believable, and having to read about Lilliet mooning over the composer every few pages just made me resist it more. I never saw any reason for these two to be so in love, and had no idea why they liked each other so much, which made their affair boring and perplexing. Also a major time waste – why was Lilliet wasting her time sneaking around with the composer, I wondered, when we could be doing something more useful, like, I don’t know, trying to escape her horrible circumstances or murdering the tenor? It also REALLY GRINDS MY GEARS, readers, that in a story where our heroine is constantly abused, raped, and victimized by men, the thing that finally motivates her to take control of her own life is the healing power of yet another man’s love. Eye rolling for days.

(oh, and the opera that was going to reveal all of Lilliet’s secrets and ruin her life? Total fucking MacGuffin. Thanks a lot, Chee.)

Verdict: two out of five stars


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