Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

A sci-fi fantasy mash-up? If you know me, you might be wondering right now who I actually am, because Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is not at all my usual sort of read. Well, this was a book club choice so despite being really hesitant about the concept, I tried to go into it with an open mind. And unfortunately, this is not the book to convince me to read similar books.

Shizuka Satomi is a famous violin teacher, once a prodigy herself. She is called the Queen of Hell and it turns out there is a good reason. She has promised to deliver the souls of seven other violin prodigies to the Devil in return for her own. So far she's delivered six and is on the lookout for the seventh. Katrina Nguyen is a young transgender woman who has been teaching herself to play the violin via YouTube tutorials. Her father is abusive and she earns a small amount of money as a sex worker. When she can no longer tolerate the abuse she's endured for so long, she runs away from home and ultimately ends up homeless. Shizuka hears Katrina playing her violin in a park and knows she's found her next student. Lan Tran is an alien, both in the sense of a creature from somewhere other than Earth and in the sense of being an immigrant to the US (she and her family have taken on human form). Her family/crew is trying to remain undiscovered as they flee from war and plague on their home planet. They've bought a donut shop and are working to make it an interstellar star gate. This is, of course, the donut shop where Shizuka gets her coffee in the morning and she is drawn to Lan despite both women keeping the secret of their real identity from each other.

These narrative threads don't actually mesh very well, and they are not the only ones presented here either. Aoki seems to be trying to do too many things all at once. In fact, there are so many traumatic issues dealt with here, rape, racism, abuse, incest, and transphobia to name a few, that it is hard to feel like any of them were given enough space on the page. The fact that there's so much going on isn't helped by the cast of characters, many of whom are barely fleshed out at all, especially Lan and family. Had Aoki chosen to just write this story about Shizuka and Katrina, the book would have held together better (although certainly a different ending would have been needed--something I might have advocated for anyway). The constant flipping of perspective between characters without any warning and even within sentences or paragraphs made this difficult to follow without having to circle back and re-read. I know many people really loved this book and I generally enjoy quirky, ultimately hopeful books but this one just didn't work for me (or for most of my book club either).

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