Light from Uncommon Stars

By Ryka Aoki

Rating: 5 stars

Seven times seven years ago, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. This has resulted in her needing to find seven souls to send to hell so that she can escape. She’s trained up six prodigious violin students and sent them all packing. Katrina Nguyen is to be the seventh. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as Shizuka ends up taking Katrina to live with her, as she’s trans and has escaped an abusive parental home. Shizuka finds herself beginning to care more for her student than she should. And that’s not the only relationship she’s starting – she starts to fall for Lan Tran, who runs Starrgate Donuts, who is the captain of a starship and an interstellar refugee, along with her family.

I honestly don’t know how this book works. It mixes demons and curses with interstellar empires and stargates, but somehow, like one of Aunty Floresta’s doughnuts, it’s perfect. I never really questioned the the way that the two things intermingled, and neither, really, did the characters. That’s not really what the book is about – it’s about love, and all the different forms that can take. Falling in love with a new partner, the love of family, the love of food and of music. Those last two play a huge role in the book as well. Obviously, the plot is about a student learning to play the violin, but even for someone like me with a tin ear and no knowledge of classical (or any other sort of) music, it evoked a kind of awe.

And the food! Well, the sweet stuff was great, but there’s a lot of different kinds of East Asian cooking here, and it’s quite strongly meat-based, so for a vegetarian like me, it could sometimes be a bit much, but it’s all very lovingly described, even if I had to skim some of it.

My heart broke constantly as we followed Katrina’s story, dealing with an abusive dad, sex work and trying not to be noticed, because she’s afraid of what will happen when she’s noticed. I honestly just wanted to hug her. Katrina’s story is hard to read, but I suspect it’s not uncommon, in her world or in ours. Most people just want to be people. They want to play their music; go out dancing; talk about the things that bring them joy; and sometimes just use the loo. And the folks who want to do a close up examination of their genitals before letting them pee need to take a long, hard look at their own lives.

One of the great joys of the book is seeing Katrina start to blossom when she comes under Shizuka’s care (and that of her housekeeper, Astrid). But it’s still a joy mingled with sadness, and a lot of anger. Katrina is just being given what any of us should get by default: respect and kindness. That she feels she doesn’t deserve it, and keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, is heartbreaking. But her new family doesn’t give up on her, and that, too, is a source of joy.

And then we have the Tran family. Interstellar refugees, with their captain and matriarch, Lan, at the helm. They have their own problems, not least with angry teenage son Markus, but they pull together as a family, and as their lives intertwine with Shizuka and her family, something new, and beautiful, is created.

All that is a lot of waffling to try to get under the skin of this amazing book. The characters are a joy to spend time with; Aoki creates such presence around the music and the food; and her writing has such a light touch. I was welling up constantly, and sometimes punching the air. I don’t know why this hasn’t won every damned (pun intended) award this side of Ganymede! Read it, you won’t be sorry (unless you’re a bigot, in which you can fall into the sun).

Book details

ISBN: 9781250789082

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