Light From Uncommon Stars
by Ryka Aoki
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 14, 2021
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Thanks to Edelweiss for an e-ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. When I first requested it I may have thought Light From Uncommon Stars was a debut novel, but Ryka Aoki has published a previous novel, two poetry collections, and a children's book. Her MFA was earned at Cornell, she teaches English at Santa Monica College, and gender studies at Antioch University. This may not even be her first SF book, since I have seen He Mele a Hilo described as magical realism, and her children's book is The Great Space Adventure. The new novel, to be published in two weeks, September 28, is an unusual mix of science fiction and fantasy, with just a dash of horror. At first I thought it was a weird combination, but was pleasantly surprised all the various elements work, producing a richly textured ode to friendship, love, loyalty, and sacrifice, all accompanied by delicious food and transcendant music. I know my feeble efforts at reviewing will not do it justice, but bottom line is: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Katrina Nguyen is a trans girl who runs away from her home east of Oakland. She leaves a note saying she is going to San Francisco, which she thinks her parents will believe since that's where all the queers go. Instead, she boards an Asian bus heading south. Not Greyhound or any other "official" bus line; they don't stop at traditional bus depots, but rather Asian markets and other businesses. She ends up in El Monte, where she hopes to stay with Evan, a boy she had previously met at a queer youth conference. He and his friends are very condescending, and as abusive as anyone else had ever been towards her. They even steal from her, money of course, but also her treasured violin, which she had bought off eBay with her own money. Prior to this she had met a woman at a park, one who seemed to enjoy Katrina's playing, and who had given her a card, which showed Shizuka Satomi was a violin teacher. After the theft, she goes to Shizuka's house for help. They find out Evan's friends had pawned it, got the receipt, and Shizuka was able to intimidate the pawnbroker to not only return the stolen instrument, but offer cash as well.
The fantasy/horror element had already been mentioned. Shizuka is under contract to deliver souls to the demon Tremon Philippe. She had been given forty-nine years to deliver seven souls. It is the forty-eighth year of the bargain, and ten years since she had offered up the sixth soul. Tremon teased her with the possibility of the next soul being Tamiko Grohl, so she returns from Tokyo to her home in El Monte, only to be disappointed with Tamiko. Then she meets Katrina. The science fiction element is in the form of Lan Tran and her family. They operate Starrgate Donuts. The previous owners had named it that after the popular (at that time) Stargate video arcade game. They had purchased three of the games for their store, adding the extra 'r' for the business to avoid copyright infringement. It worked out well for the Trans since they needed a place to hide and work on their starship, which is buried under the store, and to construct a new stargate inside the giant donut atop their building. You might wonder how they could hide a starship, and their non-donut activities, but they have a lot of high technology, such as cloaking devices, matter transporters, and they can erase people's memories. Shizuka met Lan when she came into the store to use the restroom, normally not allowed for customers, but Lan was captivated with Shizuka's beauty and mesmerizing voice. In turn, Shizuka is attracted to Lan, which later develops into a close friendship, and more.
A lot of what I've just written might sound trivial and inconsequential, but the familiar, even comical tropes, are used to illuminate the characters and their emotions. Shizuka knows what she has done is wrong, but it's all been to recover her own ability to play. Tremon has forbid her to play anything in public, and all recordings of her have been destroyed. Katrina's plight is becoming her own true self in spite of the obstacles. She is surprised that Shizuka and her housekeeper Astrid accept her as a girl without question, give her a home, food, and support for her music. The Trans had escaped the wars being waged by the Galactic Empire, leaving her husband behind because he supported the war effort, while her focus is on guarding against the EndPlague, which almost all worlds eventually fall prey to. Problems do arise when Shizuka learns the truth about Lan, and Katrina learns the truth about Shizuka. Katrina is torn between the trust she had for Shizuka, and the fear she might be betrayed. Shizuka desperately wants to play her violin again. Will she sacrifice Katrina for the opportunity? Can Lan forgive her if that is her decision? Will Katrina sacrifice herself to give Shizuka what she needs?
As I mentioned above, there is mention of a lot of foods I'm not familiar with, but would love to taste. Music is also a strong element. I don't know a lot about classical music, only the major pieces by Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc. Katrina is familiar with the standards, but also embraces more popular forms she has discovered in anime and video games. One of the games she has used to create variations on the misic is The Nether Tale (which may be a reference to a part of Minecraft). In it the player is tasked with navigating Hell, interacting with demons, with the option to help other souls to escape through positive action rather than violence. It gives Shizuka pause. Can she help Katrina, and herself, through kindness, rather than playing Tremon's game? I also didn't know anything about luthiers, those that build and repair violins. Except maybe now I do. Katrina meets a woman who is on the brink of closing the family business, Matía & Sons, since her father has died, his brothers, her brothers, and her son aren't interested, and it has always been a male business. Lucía had learned a lot from her grandfather, although her father had continually told her it was not an occupation for girls. Can she get others to accept her as a luthier, in spite of the negative influence of Tremon Philippe? Her love for the work almost rivals Shizuka and Katrina's love for music.
I know a lot of my reviews are too much synopsis, not enough analysis. If I was a better writer I'd be producing my own stories. As it is, my goal is to introduce others to books I loved (or sometimes warn about some I didn't). Just as music is a language that attempts to tell a story, to be able to combine a musical aura with a literary story can be as meaningful, and powerful, if not more so. On her website, the author says she is learning the violin. I'm not sure if her love for music inspired this story, or if in writing it she decided she needed to learn the instrument. It's obvious she knows the forms, and the strengths of music, and how they can be used to understand life. She also knows what Katrina is facing, since Ryka is trans herself. Maybe I'm not supposed to quote anything since it is just an ARC, and may change before publication, but I can't pass up the opportunity to share this from toward the end of the book:
"With no need for a beginning, nor any reason to end, the music continues. And so, no matter who you are, where you came from, what sins you have committed or hurt you have endured…when you are alone and there is no universe left to remember you. You can always, always rewrite your song."
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