When she made a deal with a demon—harvest seven souls for Hell in order to save her own and win back her music—famed violinist Shizuka Satomi thought it would be a simple matter. After all, the competitive world of classical violin is nothing if not cutthroat. And her first six proteges were all eager to strike a deal, to give up their own souls for the chance at unrivaled greatness. But that was years ago. Shizuka’s running out of time to find her seventh soul…and the girl she does find is nothing like her previous students.
Katrina Nguyen has run away from an abusive home life. With her escape bag full of clothes, her hormones, and the one violin she has left, she makes her way to Evan’s house. But instead of the easy acceptance that kicked off her acquaintance with Evan at an LGBTQ group, she finds herself being used in all senses of the word. Katrina finds a bit of respite at a park teeming with families, sports enthusiasts, and ducks. She also meets a woman named Shizuka who, noticing Katrina’s violin case, offers to be Katrina’s teacher. That offer feels too good to be true. But time and again, Shizuka proves not only that her offer is genuine, but that she will be a staunch ally to a runaway transgender teen. Once Katrina gets settled and she finally has the chance to really play violin, she begins to feel comfortable in her own skin.
While Shizuka mentors Katrina, she also finds herself drawn into the orbit of a woman named Lan Tran. Lan is the owner of the local donut shop, the mother of four, and an alien. In fact, Lan chose this particular donut shop because it is located exactly where a level-five gamma ray is projected to hit earth in about 250 years. Time enough for Lan and her family to rig the giant concrete donut outside the shop with a stargate…provided she and her family-crew can get the stargate operational. Staying on task proves difficult when Lan is so distracted by a beautiful violin teacher who is driven by her own secrets.
Light From Uncommon Stars is an engrossing science fantasy title from author Ryka Aoki. The magic of this book is so difficult to capture in a summary. I absolutely want readers to know that Shizuka, Katrina, and Lan are the three main characters in this story, but they are surrounded by a delightfully varied cast of supporting characters. Shizuka, for example, has Astrid, her long-time housekeeper and Tremon, the demon with whom she has struck her demonic deal for souls. These two interact with Shizuka in ways that really made her pop as a character—someone unflappably sophisticated and perhaps something of an anti-hero. I loved falling in love with Shizuka, only to be torn over what she would ultimately decide to do about owing Hell one more soul—Katrina’s. Lan is also surrounded by her literal family-cum-starship crew. They have already mostly assimilated to life on earth, but I really enjoyed not being 100% sure if they were truly just an odd-ball family who got a kick out of calling industrial baking equipment “replicators” and called a recipe for a donut a “reference donut.” I also liked how their thread felt so closely intertwined with Shizuka’s, and later Katrina’s…but also so wholly separate with their own drama. And then, it all comes together so seamlessly in the end.
I thought the storytelling was simply marvelous. The book overall is broken down into months, then into chapters. Each chapter, however, is a series of short chunks that string together in a way that keeps every page interesting. The switches are well marked, while still maintaining excellent flow. Single scenes may start from Shizuka’s point of view until they reach a climax, then will shift to Katrina’s or vice versa. I loved how this developed the action from both perspectives. For me, this felt most often applied when something about Katrina’s identity as a transwoman was being brought to the fore. This was also the device that allowed me to fall for Shizuka. Despite knowing she was ostensibly only after Katrina’s soul, the storytelling really showed that Shizuka cared about Katrina.
This effect where we switch from one character’s point of view to another at crucial moments runs throughout the story. It’s equally successfully applied to the main romance in the book that unfolds between Lan and Shizuka. For me, this relationship was such a sweet and surprisingly awkward slow burn. I feel like it actually started out with insta-feelings, but Lan—being both an alien and the trained captain of a spaceship/brilliant scientist—is delightfully awkward. At first, she feels like she’s too…old, too much of a mother, too much of a ship commander, too needing to stay on task with the donut shop and building the stargate to even pursue Shizuka. Yet the two keep coming together. It’s not all roses and champagne, however. Aoki does a brilliant job showing how Lan unintentionally makes Shizuka feel like she’s inferior, then shows how they work through that. This pattern repeats when Lan tries to pull rank among her crew and it’s Shizuka who is able to make Lan see how damaging that attitude would be. And the loveliest part of all of it, for me at least, is how I finally felt like I got to read a romance where it wasn’t off-the-charts, panty-dropping physical attraction or the attractiveness of the characters that was driving the romance…but the strengths (and weaknesses) of the characters themselves.
Light From Uncommon Stars is a fantastic story. It features delightfully flawed characters that come together as an ensemble to tell an amazing story. As dissimilar as the individual parts sound—a demon hungry for souls, a damned violin teacher, a runaway trans girl, a donut lady from another galaxy, a cursed luthier—Aoki weaves these all together to marvelous effect. The characters grow as the story expands and builds. There is superb attention to detail with foreshadowing that neatly ties various, seemingly disparate elements of the story together. And the ending is so fantastically satisfying, both happy and bittersweet, it actually brought tears to my eyes. This is a must read for anyone!