The Queen of the Night - Alexander Chee

February 9, 2018

3/5 Stars


An ambitious, sweeping novel with a surprising lack of emotional engagement.

The description for this book sounded utterly divine. A legendary soprano's life, and her journey from obscurity in a circus to nationwide fandom, thanks to her exquisite 'falcon soprano' voice. How could I resist such a sumptuous storyline?

However, for me, it fell rather flat, and I found myself struggling to get through it (my apologies to the author). 



Lilliet Berne is from a humble background; scolded by her mother for taking too much pride in her voice. After her family dies, she joins a circus as a horse-rider / singer, where she sets the audience alight with her beautiful voice. Escaping once again, she befriends a prostitute and ends up in a similarly sordid life, which lands her in prison, until she's rescued by a man known only as The Tenor. 

Sounds fast-paced, right? That's because it is, despite the sheer size of the book. Lilliet is seemingly bounced from situation to situation; as a whore, a secret lover, a kept woman and even the Empress's maid - and I think this is part of the problem. The movement of this book is relentless, and doesn't give the reader a chance to savour any moments, or indeed any characters. For all the rich descriptions (many of which were lovely), without the variation in pace, it felt like a breathless marathon of a book, and for me, that was a struggle. 

However, there is much that is really good in it. The detail is impressive, and I felt like I really got to grips with opera (not something I know much about). I likewise appreciated many of the characters - but wished I'd had the opportunity to get to know them more. Their motivations, thoughts and emotions were often a mystery, and this had a strange, distancing effect.

To conclude - it's by no means a bad read, and if you love sweeping, epic novels, you'll probably get on with it well. I'll keep an eye out for further books from the author, because I suspect he's done other books that are much more my sort of thing.

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