Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is a very strange book in the best way possible. It’s a story about music, trans individuals, aliens, loneliness, video games, Faustian bargains, San Gabriel Valley, donut shops, and more. It is wholly its own thing, despite the blurb on the back saying it’s Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – two of my favorite books. With its powerful characters, unique premise, and mishmash of subject matters, Uncommon Stars is probably the most original book I have read this year.
Uncommon Stars has a lot going on, but the story essentially revolves around three central protagonists, one primary and two secondaries. Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, is our primary protagonist. She was chased out of her home by a family that doesn’t understand her and finds herself on the street with nothing but her violin to remedy her situation. This is fortunate because one of our secondary protagonists is Shizuka Satomi, the world’s foremost violin teacher.
However, Shizuka has her own story that she is currently living as well. She made a deal with the devil to deliver seven souls of promising violinists to hell in exchange for getting her own music back. If she doesn’t find her seventh soul soon and send them down the river, her music will be lost forever. Finally, we have Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, mother of four, and owner of a famous LA donut shop. Lan is an alien fleeing an intergalactic war and has set up shop on Earth with her family, only to find herself tangled in the life of the lovely Shizuka. How will all these different threads come together to weave a tapestry? You will have to read this delightful book to find out.
Getting down to the brass tacks, this book is wonderful. It has some issues/kinks to work out, but they are easy to overlook with how good the story feels. It’s a very emotional book that will have you crying constantly. Katrina is a powerful protagonist and provides a rare deep dive into what life as a trans individual is like for some. Her story is incredibly sad while also being quite hopeful and warm at the same time. The struggles of both Shizuka and Lan also both add wonderful subplots that make Uncommon Stars just feel bursting with love and emotion. Aoki finds a balance between tragic realities and feel-good stories, stuffing the reader with serotonin while executing on her themes to a high degree.
Chief among the themes is the power of music, which resonated with me on the highest scale. Aoki clearly loves the violin and her affection for it bleeds through the pages and into the reader’s heart. There is also a love of San Gabriel Valley, California, and Asian American culture that wraps you up and pulls you in. There are tons of small vignettes, like one from the POV of a violin repair woman, that is connected to the main story but wholly their own thing. Every mini-story Aoki tells has this gravity to it that just pulls you in so that no matter what she is writing about she manages to make you care about it. It forms this brilliant quilt of stories that surprises and delights – but not every stitching is perfect.
While many of the micro-stories blend together seamlessly, some don’t quite manage to weave themselves into the degree I was hoping for. For example, Lan, our spaceship captain, kinda just feels like an IT team for the more centralized duo of Katrina and Shizuka. Lan’s story is great but doesn’t overlap with the other two protagonists enough. Lan feels like she is really there just to provide agency to move the plot forward at a number of key junctions. In addition, the pacing of the book is a bit uneven. The first half of the book is perfect, but around the midway point, the story starts to drag a lot. It does eventually wrap up with a powerful finale, but there was a chunk of pages that didn’t feel like it added much to the story.
Overall, Light from Uncommon Stars is an easy recommendation for anyone who is looking to feel warm and fuzzy inside or wants to learn to appreciate a whole slew of new subjects. The characters are wonderful, the story is both topical and heartfelt, and Aoki is a very talented writer. The novel’s eclectic nature is one of its greatest strengths, despite the occasional kink, and there is certainly nothing else out there like it.
Rating: Light from Uncommon Stars – 9.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.