Review: Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Jun 26 20:16:41 PDT 2022

Light from Uncommon Stars
by Ryka Aoki

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN:      1-250-78907-9
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     371

Katrina Nguyen is an young abused transgender woman. As the story
opens, she's preparing to run away from home. Her escape bag is packed
with meds, clothes, her papers, and her violin. The note she is leaving
for her parents says that she's going to San Francisco, a plausible
lie. Her actual destination is Los Angeles, specifically the San
Gabriel Valley, where a man she met at a queer youth conference said
he'd give her a place to sleep.

Shizuka Satomi is the Queen of Hell, the legendary uncompromising
violin teacher responsible for six previous superstars, at least within
the limited world of classical music. She's wealthy, abrasive,
demanding, and intimidating, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world
she has made a literal bargain with Hell. She has to deliver seven
souls, seven violin players who want something badly enough that
they'll bargain with Hell to get it. Six have already been delivered in
spectacular fashion, but she's running out of time to deliver the
seventh before her own soul is forfeit. Tamiko Grohl, an up-and-coming
violinist from her native Los Angeles, will hopefully be the seventh.

Lan Tran is a refugee and matriarch of a family who runs Starrgate
Donut. She and her family didn't flee another unstable or inhospitable
country. They fled the collapsing Galactic Empire, securing their
travel authorization by promising to set up a tourism attraction.
Meanwhile, she's careful to give cops free donuts and to keep their
advanced technology carefully concealed.

The opening of this book is unlikely to be a surprise in general shape.
Most readers would expect Katrina to end up as Satomi's student rather
than Tamiko, and indeed she does, although not before Katrina has a
very difficult time. Near the start of the novel, I thought "oh, this
is going to be hurt/comfort without a romantic relationship," and it
is. But it then goes beyond that start into a multifaceted story about
complexity, resilience, and how people support each other.

It is also a fantastic look at the nuance and intricacies of being or
supporting a transgender person, vividly illustrated by a story full of
characters the reader cares about and without the academic abstruseness
that often gets in the way. The problems with gender-blindness, the
limitations of honoring someone's gender without understanding how
other people do not, the trickiness of privilege, gender policing as a
distraction and alienation from the rest of one's life, the
complications of real human bodies and dysmorphia, the importance of
listening to another person rather than one's assumptions about how
that person feels — it's all in here, flowing naturally from the story,
specific to the characters involved, and never belabored. I cannot
express how well-handled this is. It was a delight to read.

The other wonderful thing Aoki does is set Satomi up as the almost
supernaturally competent teacher who in a sense "rescues" Katrina, and
then invert the trope, showing the limits of Satomi's expertise, the
places where she desperately needs human connection for herself, and
her struggle to understand Katrina well enough to teach her at the
level Satomi expects of herself. Teaching is not one thing to everyone;
it's about listening, and Katrina is nothing like Satomi's other
students. This novel is full of people thinking they finally understand
each other and realizing there is still more depth that they had
missed, and then talking through the gap like adults.

As you can tell from any summary of this book, it's an odd genre
mash-up. The fantasy part is a classic "magician sells her soul to
Hell" story; there are a few twists, but it largely follows genre
expectations. The science fiction part involving Lan is unfortunately
weaker and feels more like a random assortment of borrowed Star Trek
tropes than coherent world-building. Genre readers should not come to
this story expecting a well-thought-out science fiction universe or a
serious attempt to reconcile metaphysics between the fantasy and
science fiction backgrounds. It's a quirky assortment of parts that
don't normally go together, defy easy classification, and are often
unexplained. I suspect this was intentional on Aoki's part given how
deeply this book is about the experience of being transgender.

Of the three primary viewpoint characters, I thought Lan's perspective
was the weakest, and not just because of her somewhat generic SF
background. Aoki uses her as a way to talk about the refugee
experience, describing her as a woman who brings her family out of
danger to build a new life. This mostly works, but Lan has vastly more
power and capabilities than a refugee would normally have. Rather than
the typical Asian refugee experience in the San Gabriel valley, Lan is
more akin to a US multimillionaire who for some reason fled to Vietnam
(relative to those around her, Lan is arguably even more wealthy than
that). This is also a refugee experience, but it is an incredibly
privileged one in a way that partly undermines the role that she plays
in the story.

Another false note bothered me more: I thought Tamiko was treated
horribly in this story. She plays a quite minor role, sidelined early
in the novel and appearing only briefly near the climax, and she's
portrayed quite negatively, but she's clearly hurting as deeply as the
protagonists of this novel. Aoki gives her a moment of redemption, but
Tamiko gets nothing from it. Unlike every other injured and abused
character in this story, no one is there for Tamiko and no one ever
attempts to understand her. I found that profoundly sad. She's not an
admirable character, but neither is Satomi at the start of the book. At
least a gesture at a future for Tamiko would have been appreciated.

Those two complaints aside, though, I could not put this book down. I
was able to predict the broad outline of the plot, but the specifics
were so good and so true to characters. Both the primary and supporting
cast are unique, unpredictable, and memorable.

Light from Uncommon Stars has a complex relationship with genre. It is
squarely in the speculative fiction genre; the plot would not work
without the fantasy and (more arguably) the science fiction elements.
Music is magical in a way that goes beyond what can be attributed to
metaphor and subjectivity. But it's also primarily character story
deeply rooted in the specific location of the San Gabriel valley east
of Los Angeles, full of vivid descriptions (particularly of food) and
day-to-day life. As with the fantasy and science fiction elements, Aoki
does not try to meld the genre elements into a coherent whole. She lets
them sit side by side and be awkward and charming and uneven and
chaotic. If you're the sort of SF reader who likes building a coherent
theory of world-building rules, you may have to turn that desire off to
fully enjoy this book.

I thought this book was great. It's not flawless, but like its
characters it's not trying to be flawless. In places it is deeply
insightful and heartbreakingly emotional; in others, it's a glorious
mess. It's full of cooking and food, YouTube fame, the disappointments
of replicators, video game music, meet-cutes over donuts, found family,
and classical music drama. I wish we'd gotten way more about the violin
repair shop and a bit less warmed-over Star Trek, but I also loved it
exactly the way it was. Definitely the best of the 2022 Hugo nominees
that I've read so far.

Content warning for child abuse, rape, self-harm, and somewhat explicit
sex work. The start of the book is rather heavy and horrific, although
the author advertises fairly clearly (and accurately) that things will
get better.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-06-26


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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