Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki blends: a detailed portrayal of a particular mostly-Asian neighborhood in California; the competitive world of classical music, including performers and luthiers; a transgender queer violinist; lots of lovingly described food; and Faustian bargains condemning souls to the underworld. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s a gripping story and I loved it.
Content warnings: mentions of death by suicide; racism; the unexpected murder of two people; and domestic abuse of the transgender woman character Katrina. She also experiences frequent microaggressions and harassment in the course of the book. (She later experiences a validating, happy ending.)
Alien beings, refugees from the oncoming Endplague of a galactic empire, are making a home in a doughnut shop while building a stargate…inside the giant doughnut atop the building. They’ve taken on human forms as the Tran family: captain/mother Lan; her Aunt Floresta; and her children Shirley, Markus, Edwin, and Windee. Meanwhile, renowned violin teacher Shizuka Satomi is seeking her seventh pupil, who like her previous six, is meant to sell their soul to hell, through her, in exchange for a brilliant career; this happens via a cursed violin bow made by the family of Lucy Matia, a luthier descended from a long line of luthiers, all male. Shizuka’s music cannot be heard anywhere on Earth until she delivers a seventh soul; should she fail by her February deadline, she dies. She and her accompanist/housekeeper Astrid have returned to Shizuka’s childhood home, in the same neighborhood as Starrgate Donut. Meanwhile, Katrina Nguyen runs away from her abusive family, only to be taken advantage of by the person she thought would help her. Katrina dreams of a career playing gaming and anime music on YouTube; she might be willing to trade her life to achieve her dreams. When she and Shizuka meet, it seems clear where the story is heading…except that isn’t where the story is heading. The specific details of the different worlds colliding make the plot and its outcome fresh and surprising.
There are many dark themes, but ultimately, this is a hopeful book, perhaps more so because the hope comes after serious darkness. Every one of the characters, even the minor ones, has an arc of self-discovery as well as in relation to the other characters. Lan, Shirley, Shizuka, Katrina, and Lucy all suffer from feeling they’re good not enough for the lives they actually deserve. Over the course of the book, they find their own power within, and figure out how to live the lives they want when the world is against them both passively and actively. In the end, this book is about wanting to live, and about discovering the things we truly live for.
I loved this book, and I look forward to more from this author.