Book review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

A feel-good book that does its best to juggle multiple plot lines, Light from Uncommon Stars is best enjoyed when the reader leaves all preconceptions behind, before turning to the first page. Even though the book has been nominated for the Hugo Award, and the description reads like a mashup of fantasy and science fiction, the link to the speculative aspect of the story is so tenuous that it can be completely ignored. Ryka Aoki’s novel is best read as a travelogue and appreciation of music, rather than speculative fiction.

Katrina is a young transgender woman with a cheap violin, an abusive father and passive mother. She runs away from home, to live the life she’s chosen, but at first, she doesn’t find it easy. Then she meets Shizuka Satomi, a famous and feared violin teacher. Shizuka is known for producing the world’s most famous violin players, who all seem to find an untimely end. There’s an explanation for that, though: Shizuka sold her soul to the devil, and to get out of that deal, she must deliver the souls of the world’s seven best musicians instead. She delivered six so far, and she’s been looking for the seventh.

When Shizuka meets Katrina, she realizes that Katrina is the seventh. Katrina has no formal training, but Shizuka sees her potential and offers to house and teach her. In the meantime, a family of aliens fleeing a galactic war takes over a donut shop. Headed by their matriarch captain, who disguises herself as an Asian lady named Lan Tran, they are building a secret base under their shop. A chance meeting between Shizuka and Lan causes sparks to fly, and soon they begin dating. In addition to dinners and conversations in the park, Lan visits Shizuka’s house and delivers alien technology that would help Katrina to improve. Shizuka, on the other hand, helps Lan advertise her business during a high-profile musical event in the park.

As the deadline for Shizuka to deliver Katrina’s soul approaches, however, things begin to change. Shizuka realizes that she likes Katrina too much to send her to hell, and she is willing to sacrifice herself instead. Katrina, realizing what Shizuka’s been doing, is trying to give herself to the devil instead. And Lan has her own problems: she is trying to smuggle her son off the planet after he murdered two kids. At the end, through twists, switches and double-switches, Katrina retains her soul, and Shizuka flees on Lan’s ship to space, where the devil can’t reach her anymore.

While there are a few side stories, such as the unreciprocated infatuation with an Earth girl that caused Lan’s son to murder the girl and her boyfriend, or the story of a family of violin repairmen (and women), the above summary covers the entire book quite thoroughly. This book is not so much about the narrative, as it is an exploration of various foods and the appreciation of violin music. It is about the old meeting the new. About the old succumbing to the new, unless the old adapts. On one side we have the old shops and restaurants being replaced by modern strip malls and hipster cafes. Many of the latter are failing, but the old places don’t return anymore. On the other we have centuries of classical music, which survives by adapting itself to modern times: home-made music videos for Youtube and music from video games, instead of concert halls full of old music. In this regard, however, Aoki showcases the perfect contrast when she has Katrina come to her final concert with such a difficult yet obscure piece of classical music that only true experts recognize it at first.

The description of food and music is the highlight of the book. I write that after I finished a deer and potato stew, followed by a cup of instant coffee. And I couldn’t produce a single piece of music if my life depended on it. Yet, I fell in love with Aoki’s description of chicken and ducks made in ways I never thought were possible, and the love she expressed for good violin music has touched even me (okay, I may be a little biased in the last part, as I tend to appreciate classical music and can name a few violin players I really like. Not Lindsey Stirling, though.) However, if anyone expected action or even just rising tension in the book, they’d be sorely disappointed.

To call this book a slow burner may be an understatement. Not even the finale picked up on pace. If anything, everything is considered as normal, unsurprising. “Of course, it is so” was one of the most common phrases in the novel, and it perfectly illustrates the overall feeling of the story. Even Lan’s revelation that she was an alien didn’t merit as much as a raised eyebrow by Shizuka. This also firmly pushes the feeling the book evokes from speculative fiction to a sort of fictionalized documentary. I almost felt like watching an episode of Anthony’s Bourdain’s show than reading science fiction or fantasy. As much as I liked it, though, this should firmly disqualify this novel from the Hugo Award consideration.

Even though I enjoyed the slow-paced and pleasant narrative, however, I can’t help but fault the author with a hugely missed opportunity. There is absolutely no redemption arc. We have Shizuka, who condemned six people to hell just to pay for her own soul. Yet, she is not sparing a single thought of what she’s done. By the same token, it appears completely natural to her to sacrifice her own soul for her current student (of course she does). The aliens don’t draw any consequences for one of their own murdering two people. I guess it is natural to clean up the murder scene and hide the killer away, but the killer’s mother doesn’t even seem to be upset at the additional work she has to do, much less to think of the crime that has been committed. This permeates the entire story: characters just glide through it, suffering very few negative consequences (which are largely glossed over anyway). As a result, the most sympathetic character was a rival violin player who worked very hard at being the best, shows an impressive amount of honesty and integrity, and seems to be slated at losing her soul at the end. I’m not one to look for moral lessons in a story, but the idea that bad things happen to good people while bad people get away with murder didn’t sit well with me.

My advice for enjoying Light from Uncommon Stars is to forget that it’s speculative fiction. Take it as a travelogue across ethnic eateries, accompanied by a pretty soundtrack. Don’t pass judgement on any of the characters and instead consider them as someone who stepped into the camera’s field of view, with no past, no future, and no consequences for their actions. If you follow this advice, you’ll get to enjoy an exceedingly pleasant read for several sunny afternoons. If you expect science fiction, fantasy, any kind of action or a moral lesson, you’ll be disappointed. Unfortunately, for me this means that this novel is as suited for a Hugo Award as, say, Jose Saramago’s Journey to Portugal. I enjoyed both books, but neither is remotely speculative.

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