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Light From Uncommon Stars

October 12, 2021

Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, is a book that might have been specifically designed to delight me—it has supernatural elements, spaceships, violin playing, feminist themes, and great food description. And it’s well-written and full of humor. I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end.

There are three main characters: Shizuka Satomi, sometimes called The Queen of Hell, who long ago made a deal with a demon, to find seven other violinists who will sell their souls for success; she has delivered six and needs only one more to escape her own damnation. Katrina Nguyen, a promising young transgender violinist. And Lan Tran, a starship captain and galactic refugee who is currently running a donut shop in California.

The donut shop is called Starrgate Donut, and inside what looks like a giant concrete and plaster donut on the sign, Lan is building an actual stargate. She and her family also make donuts, or rather replicate them, as “one did not have to be a rocket scientist to make a donut. But that didn’t mean it didn’t help.” Underneath the donut shop is a “control center, research laboratory, sick bay, and living compound, as well as an underground hangar for their starship.” All of this is secret from humans, of course, except that Lan and Shizuka meet, fall in love, and reveal all their secrets to each other on their first date.

Katrina, who has run away from an abusive family, finds refuge with Shizuka and her housekeeper Astrid, who introduce her to Lucia Matia, a luthier. The feminist themes center on Astrid, who is more than a housekeeper, Lucia, who has been told all her life that she can’t take over her father’s violin repair shop, and Lan’s Aunt Floresta . There are moments of unparalleled irony in the relationship between these women, like when Lan tells Shizuku what her family’s “true forms” are like:
“We are plum-colored.”
“Plum colored?”
“Yes. And our hair can be any color from orange to green. Though some of us have blue—mostly from the southern quadrant. My original hair is green.”
“And we have two elbow joints. They would be here…and here.”
“What about your knees?”
“They are the same. Our patellar ligaments are more robust, however. Actually, all our ligaments are.”
“I see. And what else?”
“What else? You’re not horrified?”
Shizuka tried not to smile. “I’ll manage.”
“Yours must be a very open-minded species,” Lan said admiringly.
This, after we’ve just seen Katrina slip out of her parents’ house in the middle of the night with a black eye and broken ribs, to get on a bus where two old women observe that she’s “too ugly to be girl.”

Later in the novel, when Shizuku is thinking about how to help Katrina improve as a violinist, she reflects that she “had thought she knew all about being damned. Still, she had always assumed that damnation required some sort of exchange. Yet, this student, this human being, had been forsaken not for ambition, nor revenge, nor even love, but for merely existing? Who needs the Devil when people can create a hell like this themselves?”

One of the descriptions of food is at “a noodle house run by Chinese Vietnamese” in California. Lan has brought Shizuka here on a date and they are talking about her family when Shizuka asks “should we be talking about all this alien stuff out loud?” But “Lan pointed to her phone. A small blue light was glowing. ‘I’m scrambling our voices. Whatever we’re saying now sounds to everyone like Korean. My scans show that no one here speaks Korean, so we’ll be fine.’” They have soup: “Shizuka took a sip and let out an involuntary sigh. Perfect mouthfeel. The noodles were chewy and slippery; the steaming broth was rich with green onion, fish cake, shredded chicken, and enough MSG to flog the taste buds into submissive bliss.”

All food is a delight in this book, even chain restaurant offerings. Lan goes into rhapsodies about the food at an Olive Garden, delighted by the peach iced tea, the salad, the breadsticks, and the eggplant parmigiana.

After a number of dates feeding donuts to the ducks at a local pond, Shizuka takes Lan to a restaurant and orders duck: “Shizuka picked up her chopsticks, grabbed a piece, and bit into it with delight. ‘So good! This one must have eaten a lot of donuts.’ Lan shuddered. Yes, the aroma was amazing. But how could one think of ducks on the lake while eating Chinese BBQ?” After more conversation, though, Lan picks up a piece of duck, thinking “Yes, our universe will end, but between now and then, how many civilizations have come? How many more will rise? To the glistening ducks on hooks. To those like starships gliding upon the lake. And even after this universe ends, and the next—begins? The duck was crunchy and soft, juicy and salty, and oh so very sweet.”

There’s even an AI (Artificial Intelligence) who becomes a friend in this novel, Shirley, who is Lan’s daughter. She helps Katrina concentrate on her playing by deleting comments on her performances from the internet:
I don’t care, I’d fuck her.”
“Faggot, If it came around me I’d fucking crack its skull
Shirley was deleting more comments from the internet. At times like this, there were advantages to being cybernetic. Some of the most offensive people found their accounts mysteriously deleted, merged with their business accounts, or transferred to American Online.
No. Just no.”
“Someone put it out of its misery
These people reminded Shirley of everything they were leaving back home. But what baffled her was that their rage had nothing to do with the universe collapsing. They were saying this simply because a girl playing the violin was transgender. So stupid. So insignificant.
Shirley deleted another account.

Before the end, Katrina plays Bartok, Lucia repairs cursed violins and bows, Shizuka tricks Katrina and the demon, and Lan activates the stargate just in time to save the day. It is the most wonderful adventure.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    October 12, 2021 5:06 pm

    What a treat to find a novel that plays right into so many of your favorite things!

    • October 12, 2021 9:17 pm

      Yes! I didn’t even mention my love for food-shaped restaurant signs (although I wrote about it, at least obliquely, in the Postcard Poem about the truck stop on I-95 called South of the Border).

  2. October 13, 2021 6:54 am

    Awww I am so pleased you liked this! It reminded me a bit of Martin Millar — have you read anything by him? But yeah, all the descriptions of food were amazing, and i was charmed that even the Olive Garden was affectionately discussed. It was a neat thing where the book was excited about highbrow and lowbrow things in equal measure in similar ways (like classical music vs video game music), and that was one of the things I loved about it.

    • October 13, 2021 8:12 am

      I looked up Martin Millar and discovered that I’ve read Good Fairies of New York. I don’t remember it as a standout book but maybe I should try one of his others.
      Yes, everyone in the book is excited by highbrow and lowbrow! I spend so much of my life studiously ignoring the distinctions that I sometimes miss it when others also ignore them. In the last decade it’s food snobbery that has been on the rise, so that’s what I reacted to–but yes! I loved the appreciation of all kinds of music! It went along with the appreciation of all kinds of people, trans or plum-colored or whatever.
      I loved the descriptions of Katrina’s hands because it’s true, all violinists would love to have bigger hands. I also loved/hated the part where the luthier said no violinist would want to see what happens to their instrument there, because part of me didn’t even want to read about it. Also, it’s true to my experience that all violinists name their instruments, but most don’t like to share the names even with other violinists because often they’re very plain or odd (like aubergine) and have no big, symbolic meaning. My violin is a workshop instrument, like Katrina’s, and whoever owns it after me will probably give it a new name.

  3. October 14, 2021 12:14 pm

    This sounds really charming. I’m going to add it to my TBR list.

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