ALC Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this 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. 

CW: racism, xenophobia, transphobia, parental abuse, anxiety and panic attacks

This is another book which wasn’t at all on my radar but then I read some reviews and immediately felt like this was something I couldn’t miss. And I was so right.

The first thing I have to say is that this felt like something I’ve never read before. The way the author blends fantasy and sci-fi with raw humanity is masterful and I was left in awe. The writing in this book is exquisite, with every feeling that the author describes digging deep into our souls and leaving an indelible impression on me. The prose is raw and unflinching, and I did feel extremely sad and scared and so many other things at many points, but it was the quiet and sweet moments that make this one special. The book is also peppered with subtle commentary about the importance of found family and community – especially for queer people; the grief of displacement as well as the joy of finding a new home; and the myriad ways in which music enriches our lives.

But despite the world here spanning a galactic empire mired in a war as well as a devil trying to take back souls to hell, the backbone of this story are music and food. I have always loved singing and listening to music since childhood, but I hardly have any detailed knowledge about instruments, especially nothing about western classical music. But the way the author describes each tone in the music being played, the differences and the charms of each classical piece, the way the music deeply affects the player as well as the listener – all this just touched my heart. And the food …. that was just something. The day that I started listening to this wonderful audiobook, I also started a diet and fitness program due to which there are very few foods I’m allowed to eat. And this book just happens to be filled page after page with mouthwatering and delectable food descriptions and the sweet and savory smells and flavors. Im pretty unfamiliar with most Asian cuisine but I could still feel how delicious the items being talked about are. But the ones that left me craving and very frustrated were donuts, Cinnabon’s cinnamon rolls and just any form of bread – because not only can I not eat them during this diet period, my mom would never let me touch any of them as long as I’m still stuck here at home.

The ensemble cast is just brilliant in this book. Katrina is a young trans girl runaway who is escaping her abusive home and struggling to make a new life. Her parts were very difficult to read initially because there were some graphic descriptions of physical abuse as well as her struggle to survive in a new place with very few resources, while also beating herself up about being a freak and not being normal. Her only solace in these tough times is her self taught violin which gives some escape from the harsh real world. All that changes when she is taken in by the legendary violin teacher Shizuka, who sees her as a beautiful soul capable of producing enchanting music and doesn’t care about her body or gender. Together with Shizuka’s housekeeper Astrid, they both give Katrina the home she doesn’t have, the space to feel safe enough to explore her love for the violin as well as a future as a musician, and lots of delicious food to sustain her.

And then there’s Lan and her family of unique beings. She may be a starship captain doubling as the owner of a donut shop, but she is also a mother and a woman with desires. Her developing relationship with Shizuka is a sweet slow burn, with two women who have been alone for a long while realizing that having someone along the journey of life is not such a bad thing. Lan’s children and aunt are also a bunch of interesting people with different personalities, trying to navigate life away from home on a new planet, discovering more about this world which maybe behind them in technology but is vibrant and full of amazing people, but also full of hatred towards the people whom anyone perceives as the other.

In the end, this might have been a bit harsh and angsty and heartbreaking at times, but it’s also a beautiful story of broken people coming together to make a wonderful life for themselves, creating new experiences and sharing their joy with everyone around them. It’s a story of hope and family and community, as well as how important a part music and food play in enriching our bodies and souls. It’s also an excellently narrated audiobook and I’m glad I got to listen to it.

PS: Thank you to Netgalley and Macmillan Audio for providing me with this advance listening copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

8 thoughts on “ALC Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Add yours

  1. I loved this book and am so glad I got an ARC and the chance to review it. I also don’t know a thing about classical music, but this book kept inspiring me to google specific pieces just to see — which I’m really glad I did! I listened to a lot of great stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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