Book Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki – An Affirming Love Letter to Violins, Donuts and Found Family, and the Transformative Power of Hope

light from uncommon stars by ryka aoki, book review by cw, the quiet pond
Synopsis:

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.

I was provided an eARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How do you begin to review a book that reawakens your long-dormant memories, bittersweet regret and love for the violin? How do you even review a book that lays bare trauma and never once lies about the pain whilst also being one of the most affirming and heartening stories you have read in recent memory? How do you review a book that doesn’t just tell you that life is worth living, but shows you with gentle scenes about two broken queer women who feed ducks at a park and a trans girl who, despite all the trauma she’s endured, learns how to love herself? How do I even begin to review Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki?

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki follows three women: a trans girl runaway and violinist who plays video game music; a violin teacher who has made a deal with a devil and is looking for her seventh and final soul to sacrifice to Hell; and a retired spaceship captain and mother of four who has escaped an impending calamity light-years away and now runs a donut shop. The story follows these three women as their lives become intertwined, revealing a wondrous story about identity, music, belonging, and hope.

Despite the promise of Faustian bargains that seemingly makes the book a dark science-fiction thriller (it is not and is far from it), Light from Uncommon Stars is wonderfully tender. It is beautifully told, lyrical and emotional and personal at times, all while also depicting the honest and confronting prejudice and challenges that trans people, especially trans people who have recently transitioned, endure. Though there are three main characters in Light from Uncommon Stars, at the very heart of the story is Katrina, a trans girl who runs away from her abusive household.

Katrina is a violinist, but she’s also, what most people in the violin community would call, an unconventional violinist. Rather than playing classical pieces, she plays video game music and is mostly self-taught. I adored Katrina; she was such a gentle soul who has endured too much. Though the story portrays the prejudice and trauma that she goes through as a trans woman and portrays candidly her experiences of doing sex work and how that, in itself, is rooted and intertwined with anti-trans sentiment, Light from Uncommon Stars isn’t about her pain. Rather, the story is about how she finds belonging and love in the most unlikeliest of places – in the open and nurturing arms of a violin teacher and a retired spaceship captain and intergalactic refugee, two queer women who have complex pasts but too find comfort in each other.

What makes Light from Uncommon Stars such a gorgeous read is that it doesn’t hide the fact that sometimes the world is ugly – that there’s racism and sexism and anti-trans sentiment and bigotry and cruelty – but it shows that there is goodness and healing and hope. That sometimes family is found, and that, despite all the trauma and hurt, there is also softness and love and beauty in the possibility of being alive. That despite all of our mistakes that we have made and all of our regrets, love and care is forgiving and can make us feel like we are more again.Furthermore, Light from Uncommon Stars is incredibly affirming of queer identity and our harsh edges in a way that is gentle but staunch.  

Light from Uncommon Stars is a love letter to many things – to found family, to being queer, to donuts, to food, to immigrants, to refugees, to diaspora. But what really connected with me in a deep and resonant level was its love letter to music. I played violin for ten years, and reading Light from Uncommon Stars reminded me of my profound love of music – and after finishing this book, I rushed to relisten to music from Shostakovich and Saint-Saëns and Arturo Márquez and Rossini, basking in my nostalgia of the music I made with others. But it wasn’t just the profound and palpable love of music overflowing in Light from Uncommon Stars that I loved; it was also how Aoki captured the classism, eurocentrism, and hypercritical tendencies inherent in violin communities with startling accuracy. So the fact that Katrina plays video game music, in a world and community where video game music isn’t considered ‘real music’? I loved it and loved that it was delightfully subversive.

I loved many things about Light from Uncommon Stars, but I think what resonated with me the most is how defiantly hopeful the story is. Yes, there’s all these terrible things and yes there’s trauma, but look: look at all the wonderful things there are in this world, look at all the wonderful things that you can become, look at how hope and love can transform a person. And I loved how this message ties beautifully with Lan’s, the space captain’s, storyline and how she finds hope amid the despair and hopelessness of what she’s escaping from. (And the hope that she finds, and what she’s escaping from? I’ll let you discover that yourself – but suffice to say that I loved it.)

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

With Ryka Aoki’s enchanting and beautifully emotive writing, Light from Uncommon Stars is a profound and affirming story that will win the hearts of its readers. I adored Light from Uncommon Stars;loved that it felt like a hug, a house that feels safe and yours, and a soft bed that you can just sink into. This is science-fiction in its sweetest and finest, and I cannot wait to read whatever Ryka Aoki gifts us in the future. Read this book. (And now, to find some donuts.)

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A violin teacher who made a deal with a demon finds her final soul to sacrifice – a trans violinist runaway who plays video game music – and finds solace in a retired space captain and intergalactic refugee.

Perfect for: Readers who love whimsical and lyrical science-fiction; readers looking for a story that balances trauma and healing; readers looking for stories about music; readers who connect with diaspora stories.

Think twice if: You are not a fan of storytelling that isn’t ‘continuous’ (i.e., very short chapters that read like a series of anecdotes).

Genre: adult science-fiction-fantasy

Trigger/content warning: anti-trans microaggressions, parental abuse, misgendering, sexual abuse and assault, racism

Goodreads | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | Amazon

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