Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.

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March 1, 2022

I loved this book so much. And while I tried to make it last, I read it incredibly quickly and then was very sad when there was no more book, even as I was sobbing like an actual baby at the end.

Ahem. Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is pretty stellar.

This book has four major themes: the reality of being trans, of being an Asian immigrant, found family, and the importance of food.

The book opens with Katrina Nguyen’s escape from her abusive and unaccepting parents. She takes almost nothing with her, but does bring her computer and violin with her. We don’t know where she’s running from, but she’s running to Los Angeles.

At the same time, Shizuka Satomi, a famous violin teacher, is also arriving in Los Angeles. She’s looking for her final student, the last of seven. She’s sold her soul to the Devil, but he’s willing to forgive the debt if she pays him back seven-fold.

And there’s Lan Tran, refugee captain of an alien starship, She and her family have fled an interstellar war from the other side of the galaxy and they are building a stargate within the Starrgate Donut Shop. They’re also selling donuts.

None of these stories should work with the others–a trans coming of age narrative, the story of a musician who has sold their soul to the Devil, and alien refugees. And yet it does. Aoki performs a kind of writerly magic on these three stories and brings them together in such a beautiful way.

It’s obvious that Shizuka and Katrina should encounter each other and that Katrina becomes Shizuka’s final student. What isn’t obvious is the matter-of-fact acceptance and caring that Shizuka shows towards Katrina. In Katrina’s life, there’s never been any “of course” about her relationships–everything before her relationship with Shizuka has been transactional and people have taken terrible advantage of her (note: there is a non-graphic sexual assault near the beginning of the book).

But the reason Shizuka and Katrina connect is through Lan, the Alaska donut that Lan sells Shizuka, and the massive continuity of ducks at a nearby park.

Lan and her family’s story is one of desperation, kinda-sorta-spurious travel documents, and learning about the ways humans are different–and how those differences may provide a way to end the malaise and violence that has broken out in their home system. And what it means to be a parent to children who are struggling to find their place in the world.

I honestly cannot do this book justice except to say that it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read over the last five years. It’s going on my 2022 Hugo nominating ballot for sure.

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