Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is a collection of discordant elements: California’s San Gabriel Valley, cursed violins, Faustian bargains, queer alien courtship and fascination for fresh-made donuts. However, instead of Light From Uncommon Stars feeling overly jangly like a tin can full of pennies…this book comes together like a bit of sugar-dusted magic.
Shizuka, long ago, 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. Enter Katrina, a young transgender runaway who catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent; Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But where does a donut shop fit into all of this?
“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.”
The first thing you notice when reading this story is that humanity is laid bare. The good, the bad, and the deplorable are brought into the light for all to see. Maybe it is because it involves Faustian bargains, or maybe it is due to someone hitting rock bottom. Ultimately, who you are shines through in this story because the music and the devil know what is in your heart. I think that is why one of the main characters is transgender. Aside from the beautiful queer representation, they are being their most authentic self. Who they really are is brought out to the forefront in a very emotional and unflinchingly raw way.
And I am here for it.
The book also touches on the importance of the concept of a found family and connections. Who we are born to is not necessarily whom we end up with and our nearest and dearest could be anyone. Sometimes, our family is a bunch of alien space refugees running from a galactic war who run a donut shop and a cursed teacher, you never really know.
Light from Uncommon Stars is also a sensual experience. Music and food can be luscious and evocative, and can be powerful. Aoki uses them as mute characters. When speaking of music, “What would happen if someone played their existence not only to its inevitable end, but also to its inevitable beginning? What if someone played their music to its inevitable everything?” Or, when talking about bread, “A good bread tastes like home.”
My only caveat to this lovely story is a point brought up by the amazing reviewer Gautam Bhatia: this story is heavily steeped in American culture. This might make this story difficult to connect to if you are unaware of some of the minutiae of American culture.
If you have an opportunity to read this book, you should. It is an entertaining, heartwarming experience that speaks to the heart of what makes us both human and who we are inside. It also has darkness, it takes absolute courage to be your most authentic self. It is a painful experience when you let who you are shine free. And these three female protagonists, these powerful women each of whom are on their own path, show that courage in different ways.