Galaxy showing a (made up) constellation of two koi fish flanking a violin or viola. Image: Nicole Avagliano from Pexels and Alyssa Shotwell (using Canva.) https://www.pexels.com/photo/milk-way-2706654/

Thank You, Ryka Aoki, for Writing My First Five-Star Read of 2022

Do not read this book on an empty stomach.

Early on in joining The Mary Sue, I had the pleasure of reading Ryka Aoki’s essay Of Galaxies, Sprinkles, and Glazes: Lessons from the Donut King and Science Fiction’s Golden Age, and it got me interested in her 2021 novel Light from Uncommon Stars. However, at the same time, the number of great science fiction writers she named as influences felt overwhelming to me as an eclectic reader more firmly rooted in “it’s okay to disregard literary canon.” Despite the feeling that I should read more sci-fi before reading her book, I did it anyway, and so far, it’s the best book I’ve read in 2022.

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I’ve found several five-star reads in graphic novels like Living Heroes, Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour, and Abbott, but this is the first book. I got so caught up in life stuff that when the book lapsed on Libby (my library app), and I saw it would take over a month to get it back, I bought the audiobook to finish it out.

What is Light From Uncommon Stars About?

The plot looks a little unwieldy, depending on where you’re reading it, but this is the best summary I’ve seen online:

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

Despite sounding very plot-heavy, the work of speculative fiction (particularly science fantasy) was very character-invested. It’s a book about circumstances, choices, and the values placed on personhood. There are so many subjects addressed in this book, as you could probably tell from the synopsis. Before getting into the characters, we need to face the music.

The musical elements of the story

Of the many ways I identified with the story, the most was being a former-ish musician and artist. My musical education was very different from that of Shizuka and Katrina. For one, I played the flute (11 years) and cello (three years) in public school and community ensembles. My first time with a private instructor wasn’t until college as a scholarship requirement. Violinists (like Katrina) and pianists (like Aoki), if given the resources, can be very competitive in youth because craftspeople can adapt the size of these instruments to work for prepubescent children. (The difficulty of doing that with other instruments is why you don’t see many viral videos of seven-year-olds playing trombone or saxophone.)

While I competed in ensemble and solo (with accompaniment) competitions, it was nothing as cutthroat as depicted in the story (and the reality for many in real life). Even if I could play complex pieces on a technical level without crying in the practice room, I feared people judging my appearance (pre-daily internet access) and lack of formal musical training—training and confidence that Shizuka is always trying to impart upon Katrina. All this and more comes hurling at Katrina, and unfortunately, she’s mostly hardened from it all as a transgender woman of color.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (Image: Tordotcom.)
(Tordotcom)

The hateful comments directed at Katrina in the book, on and offline, are so common and brazen. The microaggressions towards women who make space from themselves in this institution exist throughout the music space, to such a degree that “blind” auditions and encouraging women not to wear heels have been the standard advice to avoid triggering the judge’s bias.

The music isn’t just a vehicle for the story but acts as another way Aoki’s characters feel tension between tradition and modernity. Aoki explores this in many facets of the story. However, in music, she does this with things like how people of color exist in very white music halls, the influence of social media virality in art spaces, and the value of welcoming pop music (in the stories’ case video game music) alongside the traditional repertoire with younger musicians. For Katrina (even as a violinist), this offer of guidance from Shizuka in helping navigate the very gate-kept world of music and come under her wing is very alarming because this doesn’t happen.

Katrina Nguyen

There is a lot I connected within this novel in superficial and profound ways, both of which better informed my experience with the story. Like Katrina, I was a biracial teenage girl with unwanted attention and an internal struggle with what it means to be a woman. I thought and did/said some immature things because I felt like no one understood me and felt like I shouldn’t need to explain things that were obvious to me (even if I didn’t have the language to articulate it). Also, my southeast Texas community and her southern California setting (just two fewer hours to the Mexico border) have more in common than people expect.

At the same time, I don’t carry the social stressors of being a trans child not accepted by her Asian/Latinx family. Because of that situation, Katrina becomes a homeless runaway who’s running out of the hormone medication she needs, and she gets involved in sex work to get by.

While, of course, being transgender isn’t inherently tied to sex work, many narratives (in books and blogs) cover this subject matter because the most vulnerable in a given community often have to earn money through back-channel ways. Katrina’s experience mirrors that of many trans people (especially women) in the real world. Sex work is work, but there’s a reason those in the queer and brown communities (in addition to other marginalization like citizenship status) are limited in other options and engage with it.

Later, Katrina also uses physical talent, in terms of music, to practice and hone her skills in another performance as an artist. Every performance, she gives more of herself in return for love and safety. This vulnerability mirrors the less socially acceptable way Katrina used to get by.

Shizuka and Lan

I’ve gushed so much about Katrina that I still need to tell y’all about Lan and Shizuka! Lan’s story is very much in the background, even though she’s an important supporting character. The most interesting aspects of Lan and her crew/family consist of how she got to Earth, navigating how to blend in, and the big reveal in the last quarter of the book. Otherwise, much of her story is about the stress of the family and her influence on Shizuka as they develop their relationship.

The background information on Southern California’s donut empire (cited in Aoki’s essay) makes Lan’s story (and her family) more interesting. For this, I have the perfect ingredient. While I take many issues with the documentary, the film The Donut King (2020) is a must-watch before or after reading this book. Like the book, don’t engage with this on an empty stomach. (I made the mistake of watching this in the middle of the night on Hulu.)

There’s not much I can say about Shizuka without spoiling the story because her motivations are very much guided by this contract from Hell and how her relationship with Katrina builds out. However, I feel like she is someone that many people will identify with because of her ambition, protectiveness, and ignorance of the plight of others. That sounds mean, but that’s what I enjoyed about her story, because we’re all starting from somewhere on our journey to be better people and atone for our past mistakes.

(featured image: Nicole Avagliano from Pexels and Alyssa Shotwell.)

The Mary Sue previously had an advertising partnership with Light From Uncommon Stars. This article is not a part of that partnership.

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.