Sometimes a book sneaks up on you, so viciously quiet you don’t realize how much it has affected you until you reach the final pages. Light from Uncommon Stars starts strange before turning decidedly peculiar, yet somewhere along the way, it transubstantiates into something … pure. I don’t know how Ryka Aoki does it, but somehow, this book satisfied me more than any book in recent memory.
Shizuka Satomi is a renowned violin teacher, though no recordings of her own performances are in evidence. Nicknamed the Queen of Hell, Shizuka does, in fact, have a deal with a demon: deliver seven talented souls to Hell to free herself from its hold over her. Shizuka has but one soul left in the bargain, but she has dragged her heels finding her new student, and she is now entering her final year of her deal. Finally, Shizuka finds Katrina Nguyen: a trans runaway who loves gaming music but struggles with self-acceptance. Shizuka resolves to help Katrina blossom into the musician and woman she is meant to be—even if it means condemning her to Hell.
Oh, and there are aliens and spaceships too.
Yeah, that one threw me at first—but it’s the secret to the incredible richness of Light from Uncommon Stars. Somewhere deep inside this book is a perfectly serviceable story of a woman who made a demonic deal. If that were all this book was, if it was literally just the story of Shizuka and Katrina and nothing else, this would be a damn fine novel. Instead, though, Aoki weaves this story in and among a science fiction story of galactic malaise, as well as a smaller story of a female luthier who feels like she can never measure up to her late father’s patriarchal ideas of who can repair violins. And in blending genres with seamless grace, Aoki manages to amplify her themes in a profound harmony of voices that reaches beyond the page.
At its core, this is a story about belonging. Every subplot ultimately returns to this motif—from Katrina’s desire to find somewhere she belongs yet her urge to self-sabotage before someone else does it for her, to Lan’s obsession with the Stargate game and her donut shop, to Lucy’s struggle with her sense of self-worth as the female proprietor of Matia and Sons. This is a story about people struggling with imposter syndrome, about the gulf between how one perceives oneself versus how one is perceived, about the way the ground is always shifting beneath one’s feet.
I am not a musician. Music does occasionally speak to me (mostly in the voice of Taylor Swift), but aside from half-remembered piano lessons of my youth, I neither play nor particularly partake in music in the way many of these characters do—I suppose, in that sense, I am very similar to Lan. Yet Aoki’s way of portraying musical performance in writing did speak to me. The invocation of classical composers and careful descriptions of how the playing—not to mention repairing—of violins speaks of someone who not only loves music but embraces its technique. Aoki distills this down onto the page until one can’t help but embrace it too. Before I had even finished reading this book, I messaged a dear composer and musician friend of mine for her new address, because I knew she had to read this.
I am not an immigrant nor a refugee nor a child thereof. No one has hurled racist slurs at me. I don’t know what it is like to leave my home behind for a new life far away, or to return to one’s home decades later only to find the neighbourhood changed. Still, Aoki’s descriptions of how these Los Angeles neighbourhoods have fluctuated and flowed throughout the decades, how various immigrant populations have made these neighbourhoods their own, creates a picture of the city that we seldom get to see. Aoki mixes wry commentary on Asian stereotypes with a careful delineation of differences among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese culture, cuisine, music, language, etc.—again belying the simplistic narratives that often flatten and erase this beautiful diversity. Also, this book kept making me hungry.
I am a trans woman. Much of Katrina’s story is quite different from mine and not something I can identify with—I am white rather than mixed race, and my transition has been aided by my education and social capital. My family has been supportive. I’ve never had to engage in sex work to make ends meet. Yet despite these differences, despite the level of acceptance I have found within my community, much of the anxiety Katrina feels I feel too. Struggles with body acceptance. Self-consciousness over going into stores or other public places, apprehension over being misgendered or ruthlessly interrogated about “what are you, really?” Something I have tried to stress to my cis friends is that not only is it important to push back against the obvious transphobic hatred happening on a social level, but it is also vital that they recognize the casual, cissexist, transmisogynistic microaggressions that are just a part of everyday life for many trans women. In Katrina, Aoki presents a cross-section of what a young trans person might face—both the bad, yes, but also the beautiful, such as the acceptance from Shizuka and Katrina’s unexpected friendship with Shirley.
Katrina is so much more than trans, of course, and Aoki makes sure to portray this as well. One of my favourite bits of characterization in this book is how Katrina navigates Shizuka’s unexpected largesse, from her initial reaction of suspicion to her eventual desire to “save” Shizuka from her inescapable deal. Katrina’s indifference to the curse Shizuka plans to bestow upon her reflects the philosophy she has developed that everything comes with a cost, and in many ways, her story is a journey of finding the unconditional love she has never felt before.
Which brings me to Shizuka, the pivot of Light from Uncommon Stars, a most interesting of sympathetic anti-heroes. Her story is a moral quandary for the reader: we want to like her, want to cheer for her, yet at the same time, we don’t want Katrina to end up in Hell. So for much of the story, we exist in a calculated limbo of Aoki’s design, wondering how Shizuka might possibly cheat her way out of her deal, thus redeeming and saving herself at the same time. Is that even possible without the story jumping the shark?
I won’t spoil it for you, of course, but in case you couldn’t guess, my answer is yes. Yes, Shizuka’s redemption is not only possible but inevitable, for in this novel’s many stories of the search for belonging the message that comes back is always that no one is beyond redemption. Whether through music or cooking or warp filament calibrations, you can find salvation. You can find your people. And when you find your people, when you have the tremulous tenacity to make yourself vulnerable, they will move Heaven—and Hell—and Earth to help save you, because you are worth it.
A couple of weeks ago, I raved about about The Midnight Bargain and prognosticated that the other books I read in 2022 would have a difficult time dethroning it as best book of the year; it was just that good. Well, shortly thereafter Light from Uncommon Stars rocked up and said, “Hold my tea,” and proceeded to blow me away. I don’t want to overhype this book. I found it exquisite and enthralling, and it is going to sit with me for a very long time. If, after reading my review, you think, “no, this doesn’t sound like a book for me,” I get it. I hope your book finds you one day. For me, for right now, I am simply grateful that Aoki wrote this and put it out into the world and that somehow it found its way to me.