By: Ryka Aoki
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Macmillan-TOR Forge
CONTENT WARNING: Child abuse; sexual assault (mentioned); sexual situations; strong language
I must say that after reading Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars, it was one of the most unusual science fiction books I have ever read. Ms. Aoki manages to string together a deal with the devil, a troubled and abused transgender young woman, and aliens running a doughnut shop into a unique, and beautifully told science fiction story.
The book opens with Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender woman abused by her father for being who she is. When she can no longer take his abuse, Katrina, her bag already packed and taking her prized possession, her violin, leaves for good. Shikuza Satomi, is a world-renowned violinist teacher who created six musical geniuses, who achieved fame and fortune. In the end, they died and the devil claimed their souls. It was the deal Satomi made, deliver seven souls by February 14th, or she forfeits her soul to hell. Not far away, a neighborhood classic donut shop is run by Lan Tran and her family. There is just one thing, the Trans are aliens who escaped their home world in order to survive.
The weaving of together of the lives of these three women was perfectly done. Was it coincidence? Yes, it was. However, it flowed naturally and never seemed forced. Needing to use a bathroom, Shikuza stops at the donut shop. Deciding to order, she is waited on by Lan Tran. There is an instant attraction between the two women, which Shikuza tries to put out of her mind. She has a job to complete. Heading to a park to feed the ducks is where Katrina and Shikuza meet. Katrina, violin in hand, plays for her when she asks. While she is untrained, Shikuza not only sees her potential, but finally, her seventh soul.
The core of the story is science fiction. This part was mainly the doughnut shop operated by Lan and her family. Underneath the shop, is the ship they escaped their star system in. They still run the ship and hope to return home one day. They do enjoy their new home and Lan loves the big donut on the shop. The donuts are made by the technology aboard the ship, but they ultimately find that something is missing as customer traffic decreases. They are perfect. What could possibly be wrong? What is it about certain foods that we love? They bring back memories. The smell of pasta sauce reminds me of my grandmother and when my mother would cook our big Christmas dinner. These are cherished memories. They can’t be replicated by a machine. Is that what Lan and her family ultimately realize is part of the human condition?
Where I found much of the book excelled was in the character development and the relationship between the three women. While I cannot imagine the discrimination and hate that the transgender community faces, Ms. Aoki’s writing paints a painful portrait of what Katrina goes through. She captures her self-loathing about her appearance, her wondering why she just couldn’t be “normal,” and the stares and comments from people wondering if she is a girl or a boy. She writes about the small things Katrina goes through every day; trying to avoid looking at her body in the mirror, shaving her facial hair, and one particular scene where she is shopping with Ms. Satomi and notices how much bigger her hands are. Katrina is unlike Ms. Satomi’s other students. She does not seek fame, fortune or the spotlight. She wants to make YouTube videos to play her music. Katrina has no desire for competitions or playing in famed concert halls. She is humble, kind, and despite her genius violin playing, she is still full of self-doubt. It is brilliant as we feel Katrina’s pain, and many times, hopelessness. I hope for readers that this will help to understand and accept the transgender community. People are born this way. We do not choose who we are. All people deserve love and respect.
I found Shikuza Satomi to be a cold and calculating person. After all, she is trying to save her soul from hell. Her method of sacrificing others, taking advantage of their lust for fame and fortune, is quite simply, beyond cruel. There is no moral ambiguity here. When she finds Katrina, I felt that this poor girl has gone through so much, and now this woman wants her soul to save herself. While she is kind to Katrina, providing her with anything she needs, including her hormone replacement therapy and estrogen shots, is it really kindness when the consequence is so severe? Then Shikuza meets Lan, an unexpected brightness enters her life. While she tries to put her feelings aside, they are too strong. Both women feel it. I love the LBGTQIA+ representation in this book. It goes beyond having a gay character in a book. It peels back the layers of pain in a young transgender woman, and explores the budding relationship between two women who could not be any more different from each other.
Lan is both mother and captain. They run the donut shoppe while also tending the ship. Shikuza is a distraction to her as well. She never intended to have such a strong attraction to her. Lan, while the opposite of Shikuza, is feeling the same in the relationship. While it is something she wants very much, she makes excuses. She has a family, she is captain who tends to their ship, and she is trying monitor events back home to see if they can return. It is quite interesting that how they are so different, they both are trying to make excuses for the attraction they are feeling.
The prose of this novel is very different from others I have read. There are multiple points of view in every chapter. I have read many books where one chapter focuses on one character, and the next focuses on another. It could be told in the first or third person. Light from Uncommon Stars is told in the third person from every character that appears. It is beautifully told in this manner. Each person’s point of view flows with the next character perfectly in the chapter. It was almost poetic in how it was written. The pacing was excellent. It captures your interest from the outset as we see Katrina leaving her abusive home, then following Shikuza, and finally Lan. They are three dimensional characters that we grow to care about. When the reader cares about the characters, then you know it’s an excellent piece of literature.
Light from Uncommon Stars is a unique and beautifully told science fiction story. Its uniqueness lies with the arcs of the characters and the obstacles they face. Katrina, the young transgender violin prodigy who yearns for acceptance and only to make music for YouTube. Shikuza Satomi, the renowned violin teacher who taken on only the most gifted of students. She has made a deal with the devil to deliver seven souls to hell. If not, she herself is damned. When Katrina becomes her seventh student, she unlike any others. Lan Tran, whose family escapes from a star system at war, runs a donut shop with their alien technology. Their ship is beneath the shop, which Lan captains, hoping one day to return home. However, fate intervenes when Lan and Skikuza develop strong feelings for each other. The inclusion of the LBGTIQI+ community in this book is dealt with in a moving and compassionate way, by both illustrating the hardship that transgender individuals face every day and the ease in which Shikuza and Lan begin a relationship. The pacing and prose are excellent. Told from the third person point of view, we are privy to multiple character’s thoughts in each chapter. It was never confusing; it was pure perfection. As the story unfolds, it develops into thrilling and compelling story of these three women coming together and facing down what haunts them. I highly recommend the Light from Uncommon Stars.
Summary (from NetGalley)
Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, a 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.
My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eBook ARC to review.