Content warnings: deadnaming, familial abuse, transphobia, self-harm, sexual assault, rape
Obstensibly, Light from Uncommon Stars is a novel about a transgender violinist, her teacher with a contract from hell, a family of aliens seeking asylum on earth, and a woodwind specialist. While these descriptors provide insight into the dynamics of these different point of view characters, they also inform the complex thought author, Ryka Aoki, put into the conflicts that each character faces from transphobia, sex work, and a contract with a demon to assimilation, isolation, apocalypse forecasting, and internalized sexism.
Lest you be deterred by the content warnings or the breadth of social issues being examined within this story, none of these subjects are broached crudely or without bearing in the characters’ journey. Namely, the main character, Katrina Nguyen, is a young transgender woman who has to run away from her parents’ house because of the physical and emotional abuse she faces from her mother and father. No one in her immediate family or community shows her any form of support, and she is, in fact, unsafe in each environment she interacts with because their transphobia manifests in violence. Like many unsupported trans youth, Katrina finds sex work her only source of financial coverage and uses her meager savings to hop on a bus from Northern California to San Gabriel Valley seeking temporary shelter with her one queer friend lifeline. When this situation falls apart, she finds herself in the orbit of one of violin world’s most notorious virtuoso turn teachers, Shizuka Satomi.
Satomi’s well earned notoriety precedes her return to the United States after remaining in Japan for the past 20 years: 1) each of her last six students had meteoric careers that many in the classical violin community could only dream of 2) the sudden rise of their fame is only outshone by their equally sudden demise within a year of achieving stardom 3) because of this, the way she never seems to age, and the mysterious way that death follows anyone who dares to cross her, she is known as The Queen of Hell. For this reason, there is a lot of speculation that Satomi’s return can only mean that she plans to mentor a new student, cream of the uber competitive Asian classic violinist community. The whisperers are aghast when she chooses the unknown Katrina, from a park bench where she plays her eBay-bought violin, to become her new protege. The community’s elitism is further thrown by Katrina’s penchant for playing pieces from video game albums and preference for spending time with the owner of a local donut shop, Lan Tran. Thankfully, Satomi has long done away with showing any concern about the community’s rumor mill. She is presently occupied by the fact that her contract has now entered its final year of coverage and that she must serve up a seventh student by the same time next year or her soul will become property of hell. Yet, as her relationships with Katrina and Lan develop throughout the story, Satomi’s true goal seems to be in question.
As for Lan, she’s your typical spaceship captain, pre-imminent scientist, and mother of four from another galaxy. She’s so used to making tough decisions—the only reason her family currently lives on earth is because she saw the signs of their world coming to an end before others and she cut their losses—which means she’s unprepared for romance that takes her away from her primary objective of keeping her family safe and assimilated in this new environment. The dynamics between her family growing accustomed to the multitude of cultures that surround them while being introduced to the complexity behind Katrina’s and Satomi’s lives made for some of the liveliest passages of the book. In the chapters where Lan’s aunt and son journey around Los Angeles trying out foods to incorporate their learnings into donut recipes, the food descriptions as well as their reactions to the food made me share their hunger. The warmth behind their enjoyment of comfort foods belonging to such different cultures bound by proximity is mirrored in the warmth and depth given to each character’s development. Satomi is often thrown off by the hate that Katrina faces when going to places she gives no second thought about visiting, but adjusts her lens each time she overestimates the good will or general disinterest she assumes others will have towards Katrina. Katrina finds a level of safety that she’s never experienced before in her association with Satomi, though it comes at the expense of educating her beyond her obliviousness towards the aggression Katrina faces simply because of who she is. Katrina also finds a level of kinship with one of Lan’s children, who is also limited to finding a space where they can exist.
If you are looking for a genre-blending, socially aware, and dynamic story where diversity in character identity lends strength and charm to the storytelling rather than simply being a selling point, Light from Uncommon Stars may just be the book for you.