Review: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Lilliet Berne has grown to great fame in the opera world, and so it is a great honor when a man approaches her on behalf of a composer. He explains that he has written a novel about a circus performer he was enchanted by as a younger man, and a composer has agreed to set an opera to the story with hopes that Lilliet will originate the role. What Lilliet learns is the role is based on her own life story, a story only four people–three still living–know. Mingled with her explanation of her past, Lilliet visits each person in Paris with knowledge of her life. The circus performer’s childhood, her time with the Empress of the Second Empire, and the various figures in her life wielding their power and influence are explained as Lilliet explores the possibility that Fate is inescapable and she is cursed.


What is The Queen of the Night about?

This book is the long, winding tale of a woman most commonly known as Lilliet Berne. Lilliet lives in Paris under a spotlight due to her fame as a Falcon soprano opera singer. Rumors whirl about her as she makes a series of strange decisions, brought on by a novelist introducing himself to her and presenting to her a work based on her own life and its secrets. Determined to root out the source of this tale, Lilliet wanders down a path of remembering her childhood in America, how she arrived in Europe, and the complex politics of the designers of her fate.

Underneath the tale Lilliet spins about her true life lies her desperation to escape what she believes are the machinations of Fate. Some god pulls the strings of her life, cursing her and taking from her at will the various gifts she would reach for. Everything from her voice to her name to her love is pulled in one direction or another by far more powerful agents that seek to own, control, and use her.

Genre: Historical Fiction

The events and main character of this book are entirely fictional, but real history did strongly influence the setting and secondary characters. Chee has explained that Lilliet’s story is very loosely based off his imagining of a real opera singer who mysteriously left the Paris opera scene for a farewell tour in an American circus. Additionally, real historical figures such as the Comtesse de Castiglione feature as major players, whose lives are elaborated on by Chee. Lilliet is smoothly inserted into history, just under the radar so as not to be a real person but there nonetheless.

Tropes: Political Machinations and Curses

Despite being, at first, a reasonable nobody, Lilliet finds herself swept up in the political schemes of various players of royalty and renown. She also, at first as an excuse, engages in the idea of curses. She has heard from those who’ve shaped her life that curses often ring true for the opera singer, and as rumors abound about her own potential curse Lilliet grows to fear it may be true.

Plot: A true tragedy

Nothing in Lilliet’s life has been easy. She is eternally pulled one way or another by various more powerful actors, all of whom threaten and coerce her into behaving as they wish. From a young age, she is chastised and mistreated for her gift of a lovely singing voice, something that she temporarily lets go of in her struggles to survive. No matter what she attempts to do to free herself, Lilliet finds herself in someone else’s web.

The Good

I found Lilliet a genuinely interesting and exciting character to read about. Her life’s story is suitably tragic with just enough of an air of reality to be believable. I admired her tenacity and her determination to gain freedom and also exercise her gift in the form of her singing voice. She could be ruthless at times, clever at others, and positively enchanting all the time. I also really enjoyed the writing style used to convey her life, the twists and turns so creatively invented by Chee. So many plot threads fold back into themselves and so many characters become relevant over and over again. I also enjoyed the way the story was broken down into parts, and where Chee chose to have Lilliet’s memories fade away for bits of her present.

The Okay

While Lilliet being a pawn in many a political scheme was an interesting use of her character and guided many events in the novel, occasionally the way she was manipulated seemed forced. She was below notice for most of those she feared, and never gained concrete evidence that the Emperor, for example, actually sought her out. Lilliet was both canny about trusting those with more power than she, and naive about knowing when those people were bluffing. It was a little frustrating watching her stumble into bad decisions based on incorrect assumptions when she could be so sharp and intelligent at other times.

The Bad

I don’t have much for this section, honestly the ending doesn’t truly deserve to be here but…it left me dissatisfied. Of course, I wasn’t expecting Lilliet’s life to be wrapped up so neatly and easily. Still, it felt as though she had finally broken the chains that kept her from pursuing what she wanted only for her identity, her voice, and her love to all fail her! It was heartbreaking and seemed so hopeless for someone with so much potential and life left to live.

Final Thoughts

This book is beautifully written and demonstrates Chee’s mastery of lovely prose and compellingly complex characters. Lilliet is both cunning and naive, a dreamer and a realist. She is a bag of contradictions, secrets, and despondency. Her fate and her struggles against the machinations of those that would control her are incredibly heartbreaking, as she doesn’t seem to truly believe she deserves anything she is given. She often returns to what she knows in an incredibly realistic way, and often feels like a real woman living in Paris during her time. Despite often being nothing more than a puppet in the games of those far more powerful than she, Lilliet manages to command a certain amount of respect due to her voice. Though she cannot seem to escape tragedy, and her decisions sometimes go against that very clever nature of hers that allows her survival, she is also incredibly real. Her story is compelling largely because it is hers.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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