Review: The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.  As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue. 

Half historical fiction, half love-letter to Romantic-era Opera, The Queen of the Night is an unusual and engrossing novel worth the effort of reading.

In many ways this book is an opera itself. It’s full of melodrama, the plot constantly spiraling back to the same troubles no matter how they are overcome. An inescapable sense of fate gives the book a feeling of inevitability, while the details make it outrageous and over the top. But woven throughout is this history and practice of opera, sometimes in excruciating detail. Whether you’re reading about opera for the first time, or are already a connoisseur, there is something in here for you.

I have to say, however, that the format took some … getting used to. There’s no quotation marks. But not because there’s no dialogue. Instead it’s written the way you might tell a story. Tell me more, she told me. That sort of thing. It’s really distracting (and, dare I say, upsetting?) at first, but eventually I got used to it. I’m not sure the book needed to be written that way, or that anything was added from that, but what do I know? Alexander Chee is clearly an outstanding writer, and I’m sure he made that choice for a reason.

Let me say that again. Alexander Chee is OUTSTANDING in this book.

This book was recommended to me because I asked for a book with larger-than-life characters, and boy did it deliver on that! The women in this book are something else. Glamorous, ambitious, clever, ruthless, gorgeous, sexy, talented. Real-life historical figures like Empress Eugénie de Montijo and Comtess de Castiglione play major roles, and their extravagance is such that you literally could not make it up.

For most people this is probably going to be a love-or-hate reading experience. I can’t really recommend it for that reason, because I think only some people will love it. But the people who love it will REALLY love it. I wasn’t one of those folks. Die-hard opera fans are likely going to adore it.

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