I saw quite a bit of hype last year for Ryka Aoki’s debut novel Light From Uncommon Stars, but not enough to convince me it was up my alley—the flying donut shop and Douglas Adams namecheck made me expect a zany romp that would inevitably fall short of Douglas Adams. But its nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Novel sent it up my TBR, and I was pleased to discover a book that was not at all what I expected.
There is a flying donut shop, that much is true. But despite the interstellar refugees setting up shop in Southern California, the novel feels as much fantasy as it does sci-fi, and it is much more tethered to the real world than I expected it to be. The main storyline is that of a deal with the devil. Violin teacher Shizuka Satomi traded the security of her own soul for the delivery of seven prodigies, who would receive renown for their own performances in exchange for eternal damnation. But with the deadline approaching, she has been unable to uncover a worthy seventh student. That is, until our heroine—trans runaway Katrina Nguyen—crosses her path. From this heart spawns a story deeply rooted in California’s San Gabriel Valley, telling of lives crossed with Shizuka’s, how they change, and how they change her.
While Shizuka is perhaps the most central to the novel, Katrina is clearly the main character, and her story is what makes Light From Uncommon Stars such a good book. Her struggles with acceptance—from the rejection of her parents, to the abuses of what was supposed to be her queer found family, to the harassment she faces just trying to live her life—are vibrant and deeply personal, and her relationship with her music is enough to make you want to take up the violin. Katrina simply comes alive, and she breathes life into every scene she’s in. The only other character who comes close to her level of vitality may be the neighborhood itself, with so much care dedicated to describing a setting in such detail that the reader almost feels as if they’ve grown up there–not to mention the food descriptions that will send you running to the nearest noodle (or donut) shop.
But there’s really no shortage of characters that come alive. Katrina may steal the show, but Shizuka is a pretty robust character in her own right, and even the woman who runs the violin repair shop is written in a way as to genuinely invest the reader in their craft. There may be one or two characters that aren’t so sharp—I found the interstellar refugees less interesting, and not half so alien as they thought of themselves—but this is a novel that shows genuine care to its secondary characters.
Now this doesn’t mean that everyone has a satisfying plot arc, and I found the difficulty constructing satisfying endings to be the chief weakness of Light From Uncommon Stars. This may be a story of struggle, but it heavily signals from fairly early that it will be a tale that trades in happy endings. And I wasn’t always convinced by the work it did to get to those endings, leaving more than one subplot with a resolution that simultaneously felt unsurprising while also missing on key details. The story introduced so many threads that it would’ve taken a truly stunning effort to bring them together for a perfect finish, but the inability to do so still holds this one back from greatness.
Overall, the vivid descriptions and multitude of quality characters made Light From Uncommon Stars a really good read and a very pleasant surprise, even if it didn’t successfully get everything into its proper place for the finish. I’m absolutely glad I read it, and the ambition it shows and the high notes it hits will move it at least temporarily to the front of my Best Novel ballot. But “one of the best books I’ll read all year” is a high bar, and the resolution doesn’t quite work well enough to clear it.
Recommended if you like: vibrant settings, stunning descriptions of art and food, queer leads navigating a hostile society.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a Book Club Book by a BIPOC Author that’s hard mode for Standalone and No Ifs Ands Or Buts, Family Matters, Mental Health, and Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.