Saturday, May 28, 2022

Light from Uncommon Stars

Ryka Aoki
Completed 5/28/2022, Reviewed 5/28/2022
4 stars

This book combines fantasy and science fiction with lesbian and transgender characters who play the violin and make donuts.  It’s certainly an odd combination of the genres, plot, and themes, which at times seem disjointed, but somehow, it really works.  The most powerful aspect of the book is that it has the most realistic, gut-wrenching telling of what it is like to be a transgender teen that I have ever read.  And yet there is a silliness that brings you back from the despair of the trans girl’s horrific experiences.  This book has been nominated for several awards so far this year, including the Hugo and the Mythopoeic.

Katrina Nguyen is the trans teen girl.  She’s runaway from her abusive home, landing in southern California in a largely Asian area.  She herself is part Asian, part Latinx.  What’s special about her is that she is a genius on the violin, another aspect of her life for which her father beat her.  She happens upon a master violinist in the park, Shizuka Satomi, who has sold her soul to the devil and is now trying to find a seventh and final soul to damn so that she can be released from her contract.  Shizuka takes Katrina in as a violin student.  But Katrina is different from the previous six young violinists she’s taught and damned, and the teen is not the only thing upending Shizuka’s life.  At about the same time, she meets Lan Tran, an alien who has escaped the Endplague from her home planet with her family.  They own a donut shop where they are also making a stargate.  Out of the blue, Shizuka falls for Lan, and all their lives intertwine as the time comes closer for the devil to have his due.

The plot is quite crazy.  The Katrina’s life experiences are very heavy and Shizuka’s Faustian deal is also quite dark.  At the same time, you have the kooky alien plot and the romance between Lan and Shizuka. But the characters and the storytelling are so rich that I didn’t mind the occasional disjointedness.

The story of Katrina is very, very intense, delving into the terrible experience of growing up trans, including the taunting, the parental abuse, sex work, rape, and even the trauma of simple tasks like trying to find a bathroom or go shopping.  It really made me empathetic towards her.  It is not an easy life and would not wish that sort of abuse and harassment on anyone.  And to know that attitude toward transgender persons exists today is revolting.  In the headlines of the day, a congressman blamed a mass school shooting on transgender illegal aliens, a pure lie.  So that is what Katrina deals with until she meets Shizuka.

Shizuka is also a terrific character.  As we read through the book, we get her background as well, one which made her feel the need to sell her soul to achieve the heights of the violin world.  She’s pretty ruthless and she knows it, which is why she herself is surprised when she finds herself attracted to Lan.  Lan is also terrific.  She’s captain of the ship that escaped from their home and mother of most of the crew, making for an interesting dynamic within the family.  Another character to watch for is Shirley, an AI that Lan created who also calls her mother.  

The prose is really good and the dialogue realistic.  The descriptions of the violin playing and listening are masterful.  It’s reminiscent of books like Song for a New Day and Gossamer Axe.  I really felt like I understood what it was like to play the violin as well as to be powerfully touched by it.  However, the science fictiony parts are glossed over and if I thought about it more, could probably find holes in the science.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s really powerful and entertaining.  However, the goofiness of the mixing of genres and the questionable science kept me from staying deep in the characters.  In the beginning, I thought I was going to cry a few times, but as the book progresses, it takes a step back from the deep emotional gut-wrenching, leaving me fulfilled but without the tears.  Nonetheless, I highly recommend the book and would honestly like to see this win the Hugo.  

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