Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

A few chapters into Light From Uncommon Stars, after it was clear that the violin teacher had made a pact with a demon and was under tight deadline to collect one more soul or else the usual penalties would apply and also that the local landmark donut shop was run by space aliens pretending to be human and biding their time for a couple of centuries until a galactic conflagration had passed and they could safely return to civilization by turning the solar system into a tourist destination, I was worried, concerned that Aoki would try to shoehorn all that strange into some semi-plausible systemic worldbuilding. I needn’t have fretted. Aoki has faith in her art, faith in her readers. She doesn’t try to explain why an apparently normal earth of the early 21st century has demons and aliens, has had at least one of them for quite some time, with most people are none the wiser. She leans in to her weirdness, and I love it.

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Another great thing about Light From Uncommon Stars is that all of the characters I can think of are having their own stories, with themselves at the center of those stories. The book isn’t about all of them equally — it would be unreadable cacophony if it were — but they are not there just to support things that the author and her chosen narrative want to happen to the protagonists. They are living their own tales, with themselves as the good people at the center, and they just happen to intersect for a while with the story that Aoki is telling. The character who creates greater problems through inappropriate violence absolutely thinks he is doing the right thing; the characters who fall victim to that violence are at worst heedless folk who mostly want to have fun, and who wasn’t like that at some point or another? The demon wouldn’t say that he’s good, exactly, more that he’s fulfilling his nature of taking souls off to eternal torment, and he’s good at that, he’s practically an artiste of the diabolical contract, and the six souls the violin teacher has delivered up were so very exquisite. The violin maker from a distinguished family who thinks her gender bars her from that legacy, the aunty who figures out why the donut business is declining, other aspiring violinists who are willing to do anything for fame and fortune. Each has their story, and Aoki tells part of it while leaving no doubt that it continues beyond the confines of this book.

Aoki chooses to concentrate on three stories: Katrina Nguyen’s, Shizuka Satomi’s, and Lan Tran’s. Katrina is a young trans woman, who is first of all trying to survive, second working to be her true self, and third discovering that playing the violin is not just something that’s oddly important to her but may be the key to the first two as well. Shizuka was a stellar violinist until suddenly she wasn’t, decades ago. Since then, she’s become a legendary teacher, nurturing transcendent genius in carefully selected students, all of whom met tragic fates. She’s known in certain circles as the Queen of Hell, but the people who use the nickname don’t know how close to the literal truth it is. Probably not, anyway. Lan is not what she seems, and the hints start early.

Lan Tran loved her donut. Her giant concrete and plaster donut.
Once common in LA’s Eisenhower years, just a few of these donuts remained in greater Los Angeles. There were Kindle’s Do-nuts, Dale’s Donuts, and Randy’s Donuts, of course. Donut King II was in Gardena, In La Puente, there was the drive-through Donut Hole.
And here, above El Monte, rose Stargate Sonut.
Lan’s donut meant a future. Her donut meant family.
In the night quiet, Starrgate Donut hummed, almost like a starship. Stationed in the front, her twins Windee and Edwin navigated the donut case, stocking it with galaxies of sweet, colorful lemon creams, apple fritters, double chocolates, Boston crèmes, twists. At her back, Shirley and Aunty Floresta maintained operations, while below, Markus was busy planning their next expansion.
“Hello, Captain!” The twins saluted.
Lan returned their salute.
“Carry on,” she said with a satisfied smile.
Shirley emerged from the back with a tray of chocolate éclairs.
“The replicators are operating within tolerances, Mother.”
“Thank you, Shirley. But create the next batch with thirty percent less residual heat. We won’t have many customers, so they don’t need to be hot, and we can save power that way.”
“Yes, Mother.”
Lan Tran stared out the window. The stars beckoned as they always had.
One did not have to be a rocket scientist to make a donut. But that didn’t mean it didn’t help. (p. 20)

Light From Uncommon Stars is a joyous book, as Lan’s introduction hints, but it is hardly a parade of sweetness. Consider how Katrina’s story begins. She’s grabbing her escape bag to run away from home. It was under her bed, and she had made it the first time her father threatened to kill her for not being the boy he still saw. Girl clothes. Boy clothes. Money. Birth certificate. Social Security card. Toothbrush. Spare glasses. Backup battery. Makeup. Estradiol. Spironolactone. (p. 5) And as she sneaks out the window: “Ticket. Laptop. Escape bag. Violin.” (p. 6) The word “violin” gets its own paragraph because the instrument will turn her whole world around.

The book begins in February, when Shizuka has just under a year to deliver a seventh soul to her demon, or forfeit her own. She’s come to LA from Japan to attend a violin competition because she has sensed that her next, final, student will come from that area. Two things happen to derail her plans. First, the competition shows musicians that are good, but somehow not what she is looking for. Second, she has to pee. The vagaries of bathrooms near LA freeways land her in Starrgate Donuts, where the owner unexpectedly lets her into the employees-only area to take care of her needs. Behind the counter, Shizuka hears incomparable celestial sounds. Afterward, on the other side of the counter, Shizuka orders and meets the owner’s eyes.

Donut Lady’s eyes. They were dark, almost too dark for this world. And yet, somehow, they reminded Shizuka of old Mr. Grossmueller, who had survived Bergen-Belsen and devoted the rest of his life to playing Handel.
Donut Lady placed Shizuka’s coffee and donut on a tray.
“Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” Shizuka said, shaking herself to attention. After all, this woman had saved her life.
Donut Lady smiled.
And Shizuka felt herself fall into a field of stars. (p. 28)

I found it easy to fall into the field of stars that form this book. Chance meetings, California details, deliciously overdramatic flourishes like the appearance of Shizuka’s demon (Tremon Philippe by name, dressed with exceptional taste), characters quietly being themselves no matter what the story seems to require of them. All of these elements brought me into the many worlds — for each person portrayed is at least a world — that shine under the light from uncommon stars.


Doreen’s review is here. Like her, I put it at the top of my Hugo ballot in the category of Best Novel. On the evening of September 4 (Chicago time), I’ll get to find out what the other voters thought.

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  1. […] joint reactions would be even better. Looking at the longer list of statistics, I was so glad that Light from Uncommon Stars scraped in to the finalists. I would totally have missed it otherwise, and what a great book! The […]

  2. […] owe my favorite book of 2022 to the Hugo nominators who got Light from Uncommon Stars onto the finalist list, and the publishers who generously provided an electronic copy to all […]

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