As we sprint towards the deadline for Hugo voting and I, for the second year in a row, concede defeat over being able to read all the books in time, I wanted to make sure that I at least got to cover a book Doug was raving to me about (tho I see he hasn’t yet gathered his thoughts together here for a review, tut tut.)
While I’ve found that he and I can both like and be lukewarm over books for different reasons, when we agree on something being rad, it’s truly spectacular. And that latest something is Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, which for me was like the manga/light novel remix of my dreams! Sweet, soft teenage protagonist who’s gone through more than anyone her age should ever have to but has a wondrous talent and inner light: check. Ambivalently forbidding mentor figure who’s made a demonic pact but is still the protagonist’s biggest champion: check. Household helper to the mentor who is both motherly and adorable: check. Granted, the space alien love interest of the mentor is rather out of the ordinary, tho said love interest’s family going undercover on earth running a donut shop goes back to delightful reverse isekai form.
And in fairness I haven’t read much sci-fi manga, so maybe genre mashups are more common than I expect. But what I can confidently say is that all this mixed together — with our protagonist also being a trans girl, btw — makes for a truly uncommon if not outright rare delight. Ryka Aoki does not care about genre and neither should you, as you enjoy this virtuoso novel of a violin prodigy who finally finds a home with an unusual cast of utterly delightful people.
Katrina Nguyen runs away from home after years of abuse, only to find herself seeming to go from the frying pan into the fire. When Shizuka Satomi finds her, the teenager is almost at the end of her rope, and only accepts Shizuka’s offer to give her violin lessons in a desperate attempt to get her beloved instrument back from where it’s been pawned.
Shizuka herself is coming to the end of the forty-nine year contract she agreed to with the demon Tremon. She still has the soul of one more student to deliver to him, but between meeting Katrina and kindling a romantic relationship with the cute owner of the nearby doughnut shop, she’s starting to have second thoughts. Lan Tran is showing her that there’s more to life than applause, but it’s perhaps Katrina’s struggles as a trans girl who dreams of becoming a musician that are really driving home to Shizuka what music means, or ought to mean, to her: less a means to an end than a gift in itself.
Y’all, as a musician, I devoured this wonderfully life-affirming novel of love and friendship and music and triumph and stargates in a single day. I full body cringed when I read about the bridge being superglued to the instrument, but also thrilled to Katrina’s growing musicianship and confidence. As a person who also used to say “sorry” way too much, I absolutely empathized with her, and loved how she blossomed under Shizuka and Astrid’s care. Shizuka and Lan’s own evolving relationship with music (and with each other) was another highlight, as was the way Shizuka, of all people, taught Lan how to be a better mom.
I loved how Ms Aoki wove a highly entertaining sff tale while also fearlessly tackling themes of queerness, immigration and feminism. I’m ngl, I was outright astonished and impressed by her willingness to rake abusive queer communities over the coals as well as to show that being ambitious doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole (see: Tamiko, whom I sure do hope makes it out okay!) It was also refreshing to see Shizuka’s concern that Katrina was being introduced in musical settings first and foremost as a transgender activist instead of as the brilliant performer that she was, in keeping with Ms Aoki’s clear thematic insistence that the music is what matters most. I also appreciated the author’s refusal to demonize (heh) sex work, and am glad that Katrina could engage Mr Tso on her own terms, even if what he did when they were first introduced was totally not okay.
I’ve only read one other nominee for this category so far, the underwhelming A Master Of Djinn, and might not be able to get to many more but I’d be really impressed if any of the other books could surpass the brilliance of this one.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki was published September 28 2021 by Tor Books and is available from all good booksellers, including