Book review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

The world, nay the galaxy is a big, messily wonderful and diverse place and it’s a joy to see it reflected in the pages of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, a vigorously alive novel that takes a brilliantly out-there premise and runs with it in ways that will delight, unsettle and make you supremely glad you are alive to read it.

Tagged on the front cover as a “transformative marvel” by author TJ Klune (The House in the Cerulean Sea), Light From Uncommon Stars is one those superlative books that is so good and so impactful that you walk away from it changed in vitally important ways.

At first glance, you might wondering if that’s where you’re going to emotionally land since the narrative that underpins the novel is one of the most imaginatively quirky ones you’ve likely come across.

In short, a transgender runaway by the name of Katrina Nguyen, who is a violin virtuoso without formal training but a magnificently moving gift, is heard playing one day in a park by internationally renowned violin teacher, Shizuka Satomi, who immediately realises what a phenomenal talent lies before her.

So far, so A Star is Born you might think.

But the gloriously surprising twist in this seemingly straight down the line biographical meet-cute is that Satomi is in a supernatural race against her line with her deal to deliver the souls of seven violin prodigies coming due; meet the deadline – she has sent six already to the gaping maws of hell – and her soul is safe, miss it and she is condemned to spending an eternity suffering for her artistic sins.

Shhh

Yes, it hurt. It was definitely not just a bruise. Yes, she was scared. Her throat was raw from screaming.

Cautiously, Katrina Nguyen felt under her bed.

Girl clothes. Boy clothes. Money. Birth certificate. Social security card. Toothbrush. Spare glasses. Backup battery. Makeup. Estradiol. Spironolactone.

Katrina had made an escape bag the first time her father threatened to kill her.

At first, the bag seemed an “in case of emergency”, a glass that one would never break.

But after tonight …” (P. 5)

It’s a breathtakingly beguiling premise and one that in less assured hands might have gone very wrong, very quickly.

But Aoki, a transgender author who knows about what she writes from insightful lived experience, ensures that an outlandish idea translates into a deeply affecting story about one young transgender woman’s quest to find love and acceptance for who she authentically is, something that has thus far eluded her, and a jaded violin teacher who suddenly comes to realise that perhaps the trajectory of her life isn’t as straightforward as she first assumed.

Helping her transformative journey is Lan Tran, the mother of an outwardly Vietnamese family who runs a much-loved donut store in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, and who is, and here’s another fantastically well-realised left turn of epic proportions, also an interstellar starship captain who has worked tirelessly to get her family, who also double as the crew, to earth where they find safety from a violent end-of-civilisation conflict that is close to bringing down the Galactic Empire they usually call home.

Satomi and Tran meet over an Alaska donut one day and thus begins a nuanced and touching relationship between two people needing reinvention and new life and who find it in ways that neither expects, changing their lives utterly and completely in ways that remake the fabric of everyone’s lives in the book.

Ryka Aoki (image courtesy Goodreads)

If that all sounds ridiculously and crazily over the top, on paper it is.

But magic is woven by Aoki through every word and page of Light From Uncommon Stars such that at multiple points through every chapter, you will stop and gasp in recognition at the way the author captures and distills the vibrancy and vulnerability of humanity so achingly perfectly.

It doesn’t matter who you are and who you identify as or where your diverse giftings may lie, Light From Uncommon Stars has something profound to say to you.

Far from being some off-the-wall jaunt into the weirdness of life in L.A., and the galaxy far beyond, Light From Uncommon Stars, alternates between being manifestly joyful and soberingly intense, a novel which recognises the great darkness that resides in some souls but celebrates the hopefulness and light that exists in many others.

Aoki manages to simultaneously have some fun with her ideas while delivering up some important and salient messages about humanity, society and life, the universe and everything in ways that aren’t even remotely melodramatic, saccharine or preachy.

Her seamlessly wrought storytelling alchemy is buoyantly given extra vigour by characters who are as memorable as they are authentically, charmingly and sometimes heartbreakingly themselves.

“Shizuka pointed at Katrina’s heart.

‘Everything the audience hears, what we strive to create … what we live to convey … it comes from there. In your hollows. In your nothingness.

‘There is where your music gains its life.'” (P. 174)

Katrina is very much a case in point as is Shizuka, with both characters, upon whom the fate of a number of people, not least themselves, rest, vivaciously alive in ways that take your soul, thankfully not to hell but to somewhere very real, grounded and accessibly human.

The young violin prodigy, who has the power to move people with her music in ways epic and quietly sublime, is a study in healing contrasts; when Satomi first finds her she is emotionally and physically bruised, certain of her gender identity beyond a shadow of doubt but broken into so many self-doubting pieces that it takes considerable unconditional love and support from Satomi, her housekeeper and friend Astrid, Tran and her AI daughter Shirley just to start bringing her to some kind of wholeness.

Watching her heal from a lifetime of bigotry and abuse is one of the great joys of Light From Uncommon Stars which sparkles with the vibrancy of identity truth and which happily celebrates the wonder that is a unique and diverse person whose worth and value are writ large if only you have to openness to see.

Satomi undergoes her own amazing journey, going from a resigned and somewhat disillusioned though accepting person living only to reclaim her music and her soul, to someone who finds real, unconditional love, a chance at an unexpected and out of this world new beginning, and a family and a purpose she never knew could be hers.

Light From Uncommon Stars orbits in ways beguilingly small and transformingly large around these two central characters, and a host of other major and minor players, its heart and yes, soul, richly and deeply alive with joy, hope and possibility, even in the face of prejudice and darkness, which in turn renew anyone who reads it, especially if you have ears to listen, a heart to take it in and importantly, given its subject matter, a soul open to the glorious diversity of a world that is so much bigger and more wonderful than you ever imagined.

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