This is a sweet and heartfelt tale about humanity, music, doughnuts, acceptance, and more – it combines a whole mix of extremely strange elements into one lovely, if unusual, story.
Book: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Publication date: 28th September 2021
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Transphobia; parental and familial abuse, including mental, physical, and sexual; rape and sexual assault; depiction of consensual and non-consensual sex work; racism; mentions of self-harm and suicide.
Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts.
Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.
When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.
As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.
When I saw this being compared to Good Omens and Becky Chambers, I was definitely intrigued. I’ve been burned by comp titles so many times, but I think Light from Uncommon Stars does have a kinship with them; not in style or subject, exactly, but in a sense of optimism and care for humanity. I’m actually not sure how to write this review, as there seem to be several layers to this book: on the one hand, you have the story as described, of Shizuka Satomi taking in a young violin prodigy with the aim of exchanging her soul for freedom, but on the other hand, you have a dreamy, choppy narrative that looks at everything from the journey of self-belief for a young trans girl, to refugee aliens running a doughnut shop, to the power of music to move people’s emotions and memories, to the dangers of trusting too much in family legacies. There’s quite a stonking list of content warnings up there, but the book handles each issue sensitively and uses them in ways that make each character feel very human.
The story is told in snatches rather than in one long narrative, with line breaks and point-of-view switches every few paragraphs. I don’t know how this would appear on the printed page, but in my ebook copy it was easy enough to get used to, and gave an almost dream-like quality to the story. It made me turn the pages very quickly, and blurred the passing of time – the book takes place over a year, but that year slips away from you just as it does the characters, which is clever. The narrative seems to simultaneously be very personal and have a level of objective detachment, which reminded me a bit of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, another book that sits between the surreal and the mundane, and has a similar bittersweet view of humanity. That isn’t to say that the detachment stops this from being a very emotional and heartfelt read, though; it’s a style that allows for some deep dives into the personal histories of the characters in a way a more straightforward narrative might not. There’s also plenty of humour to lighten things up, particularly around the alien characters and their understanding of humanity, and Shizuka’s love of Star Trek – I wish we’d had even more of this, as those were my favourite bits!
There are dozens of characters in this book, and part of the power of it is that each obviously has their own rich inner life; we get to know several well, but the story centres on Katrina, the violin prodigy, Shizuka, famous violin teacher and secret soul-seller, and Lan, the mother of an alien family. All three women are queer, but while that’s important to their stories, it’s by no means the only thing about them, which is something that’s really well handled and makes them feel very believable. That being said, this is a story with strong, powerful trans rep, and it doesn’t shy away from the dark or the light aspects of Katrina’s experience. It can be hard reading at times, as Katrina faces a lot of transphobia on-page and in her backstory, but ultimately this is an optimistic story, and the acceptance she finds both from others and herself is lovely. I really liked Charlie Jane Anders’s review, if you’re looking for an own voices take on the rep.
If, like most of Book Twitter, you enjoy descriptive food writing, you’ll adore the huge attention to detail paid to the variety of meals here; if, like me, you really don’t particularly care for it, you might find it a bit tedious. I know, I know, I’m the weird one for not revelling in pages of dish descriptions. It did make me want doughnuts, but pretty much just seeing the word will! I’m also going to say that I ran into a little bit of the same trouble I had with A Song for a New Day, which is that I don’t find myself transported by descriptions of music being played (more details here), so I felt like I was missing something in those scenes. Again, if you do love that kind of thing, then there is plenty of it here and it’s clearly been written with a huge amount of love and care. I have next to no knowledge of the violin world, and I followed everything, so it’s not that you need prior in-depth knowledge, it’s just whether it touches you, I suppose. If it doesn’t, there’s still plenty to love!
Something about this book reminded me a little of Matt Haig’s early fiction; his books The Radleys and The Humans have a similar kind of outsiders-looking-at-humanity feel. I’m not saying this is derivative, at all – it’s not – but it has that same quality of feeling literary even though it’s deeply SFF. Ultimately for me, this philosophical bent kept me at arm’s length from connecting with it whole-heartedly. I just couldn’t quite get swept away in the characters because I felt like I was expected to feel emotional about it – it’s so obviously written to be contemplative and heartwarming, and that has the desired effect, but I couldn’t help but feel a little manipulated, rather than coming by the feelings organically. It’s hard to express exactly what I mean, but even with my failure to get completely emotionally invested, I still think this is a powerful, hopeful piece of literature that will have great impact.
There’s no doubt this is going to be a huge hit with Becky Chambers fans, or anyone looking for a really thoughtful piece of speculative fiction that falls on the more quirky, literary end of things. It’s sweet and lovely – but make sure you have doughnuts on hand! Four out of five cats.