The Queen of the Night
is an historical fiction novel by American writer Alexander Chee, published in 2016. The story details the life and adventures of a uniquely talented opera singer calling herself Lilliet Berne. Set in 19th century Paris, this first person narrative uses the tropes and rhythms of opera itself to tell a life story defined by acting, artificiality, and Gothic flourishes that flirts with the supernatural.
The story begins in 1882. The narrator, a mysterious woman under the alias of Lilliet Berne, is a rising star of the opera in Paris. Celebrated for her rare Falcon soprano singing range, all Lilliet lacks in her professional career is an opera written just for her. When one is finally presented, Lilliet is shocked. The opera is clearly based on her secret life story, meaning she has been betrayed.
Lilliet casts her thoughts back to her youth, growing up in a religious family where her “prideful singing” is considered sinful. When her family dies of a fever, she travels to New York where she signs up with a traveling circus headed for Europe. Her circus career culminates with a performance in front of French Emperor Napoleon III, and she is rewarded with a priceless ruby brooch. Lilliet leaves the circus to start a new life.
In Paris, she meets a courtesan named Euphrosyne and strikes up a deep friendship. When an angry man threatens Euphrosyne, Lilliet leaps to her friend’s defense. The two are sent to Saint-Lazare prison where Lilliet registers herself as a courtesan to be able to stay with him. Upon their release, Lilliet is invited to work as a courtesan by a woman named Odile. Unable to pay her debts from her imprisonment, Lilliet has little choice and so plunges herself into the role of a prostitute. She meets a fellow singer she calls the Tenor, who falls in love with her and her remarkable voice. The Tenor purchases her from Odile, intending to oversee Lilliet’s training and promote her career.
The story switches back to the present day, where Lilliet feverishly tries to figure out who has betrayed her. Lilliet narrows down the possible suspects to four. The first two suspects are revealed to be Euphrosyne and the Tenor, respectively, but it is not revealed who the latter two suspects are. Lilliet quickly establishes that neither Euphrosyne or the Tenor have betrayed her, and Lilliet’s thoughts return to her past.
The Tenor has her audition for a famous music school—but the school rejects her application because her Falcon soprano voice might "break" at any moment. She engineers an escape from the Tenor by having herself returned to prison. Her cellmate at Saint-Lazare this time is a mute woman called La Muette. When La Muette dies, Lilliet takes on her identity. At an orphanage, she meets the Comtesse, who sponsors Lilliet to work in the household of the Empress. Lilliet enjoys her work, still playing the role of La Muette, and is chosen to accompany the Empress on a lengthy hunt. At a function during this trip, Lilliet meets and falls in love with a man she calls the Composer—but is also found by none other than the Tenor, who tells her that he has arranged for them to escape together back to Paris.
Lilliet takes matters into her own hands, engineering her own escape and sleeping with the Composer. Lilliet returns to Paris and contacts the Comtesse, revealing her ruse. The Comtesse takes her in but orders her to return to the Tenor, who arranges to continue her musical training, still entranced by her voice. Back in the present, Lilliet attempts to confront the Comtesse, but the aristocrat is heavily guarded and refuses to see Lilliet, which convinces Lilliet that the Comtesse is the one who betrayed her.
In the past, Lilliet and the Tenor return to Paris, where she encounters the Composer, whose real name is Aristafeo Cadiz. Lilliet escapes the Tenor and asks Aristafeo to leave with her, but he convinces her to stay in Paris with him instead. For a time, they imagine themselves married and are happy until Lilliet discovers that Aristafeo has been conducting an affair with the Empress. She takes off her ruby brooch and leaves. In war-torn France, she meets a military commander, Eugene, and the two become lovers. The Tenor sends word that he has a plan to smuggle Lilliet into Germany via hot air balloon. Eugene follows Lilliet to the rendezvous, intending to kill the Tenor to free Lilliet from him. Instead, it is Aristafeo who comes, telling Lilliet he has been paid by the Tenor to protect her. Eugene attacks Aristafeo, apparently killing him as Lilliet lifts off.
She crashes in Germany, initially caught between the Tenor and the Prince, a man she knew from the Empress’ hunt, but she manages to set the two against each other and secure her freedom. She launches her opera career, and the narrative returns to the present, eight years later. At a ball Lilliet finally meets the author of the opera that has betrayed her—it is Aristafeo, who reveals he was spared at the last minute by Eugene and has been working on his opera ever since. He tells her he intends to challenge the Tenor to a duel for her honor. Lilliet instead kills the Tenor herself, poisoning him. Aristafeo is horrified by her actions, and she will be tried and executed for the murder.
She meets none other than P.T. Barnum, the famous American circus promoter, signs a contract to perform in America, and recruits her old circus friends to join her. As she embarks on her tour of America—which will leave her a wealthy woman—she realizes that her "curse" was never that she couldn't control her fate, but rather that she always could.