SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
Light From Uncommon Stars. By Ryka Aoki. Tor Books, September 28, 2021.
It’s an unexpected joy to find a book that should not work, yet absolutely does. Such a book is Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars (Tor, 2021, $25.99), which combines fantasy (or, the supernatural, if you prefer) with science fiction in a plot that links the two genres together through the passionate emotional connections of its characters. The human condition transcends genres, and Aoki’s novel never feels disjointed or clumsy. Here, the science fictional and supernatural elements are pieces of the same puzzle, and they fit together perfectly.
As someone who plays the violin slowly and poorly, I am deeply envious of both Shizuka Satomi and Katrina Nguyen, the novel’s chief protagonists—they are not only unparalleled virtuosi, but are so completely enamored of music that they risk their lives and souls to be at its epicenter. Music and the desire to achieve perfection in an art, whether that’s playing the violin or crafting the perfect donut, propel the novel. The transformative nature of art, the idea that creative expression can transport people to a place where they can experience their true natures, are forces that can make uncommon stars of us all.
At the center of this transformative process is Katrina, a transgender woman in Los Angeles fleeing a horrible life under the thumb of her transphobic and physically brutal father. She is a self-taught violinist, playing with surprising skill on a violin that is her lifeline in a world of sleeping on streets and crashing at friends’ houses, part-time jobs and occasional prostitution. The music she plays is born from her trauma and her brave survival: as her soon-to-be mentor Shizuka notes, “[w]hat the girl held was…echoes of hatred, of insanities, of melodies one sings only when one has survived emanated from her just the same.” Katrina is no mere victim: she is a strong, intense woman, but at the same time she is vulnerable to tempting offers from someone who might offer her security.
That someone is Shizuka, a former violin star nicknamed “Queen of Hell” for having mentored six brilliant violin prodigies, all of whom died young and violently. We quickly learn that this is not merely a horrible coincidence, but part of a fateful deal Shizuka has made with Tremon, a demon. Shizuka has agreed to provide Hell with seven souls—seven musical geniuses’ souls—to save her own soul from eternal damnation. Despite the guilty weight these deceptions have placed on her, Shizuka has already given Hell six souls, with Katrina targeted as the seventh. Part of Aoki’s genius is making Shizuka a sympathetic character—of course, we’d care less about Faustian bargains if we had no reason to feel compassion for their Fausts.
This by itself would make a riveting novel, but Aoki adds a parallel science fiction tale of intergalactic refugees. Lan Tran, matriarch of a small band of humanoid aliens, has fled to Los Angeles from the violence and oppression of a collapsing interstellar empire that is facing what Lan calls the “Endplague” – an inevitable manifestation of destruction that affects systems and individuals alike. Lan and her family operate Starrgate Donuts, a donut shop that serves as a cover for their construction of a new warp gate. Their mediocre donuts, originally replicated by alien technology, are eventually replaced by homemade donuts made to perfection. It’s Katrina’s musical achievements on a smaller scale—the evolution of true creation that comes from one’s spirit and soul and inner nature. The two narrative strands are brought together when Shizuka meets Lan, and the two fall in love.
Aoki is at her best in Light from Uncommon Stars when describing the emotional and psychological pull of music. Whether it is Lucy recalling her father’s opinion of music:
Catalin Matia would smile whenever someone described great music as divine.
To him that was nonsense. Great music is all about weakness, uncertainty, mortality – what does Heaven know of these?
In the same way, there is nothing transcendent about a violin. It is maple, spruce, ebony, an ounce or so of hide glue, some brushes of varnish.
Perhaps this is why the violin fits the human soul so perfectly – only such a simple, mortal object can hold its fragility and turn it into a prayer.
Or Shizuka’s instructions to Katrina:
“Of course, string qualities matter. But no one pays million, or even thousands, of dollars for a set of strings. Trust me – if it were necessary, we would. But strings are only the source of the vibrations. These vibrations are taken via the bridge through the sound post into the body of the instrument itself.
And there, in the dark, the sound develops. There, in the empty spaces, a violin’s voice matures, gains complexity, power, depth…
Everything the audience hears, what we strive to create…what we live to convey…it comes from there. In your hollows. In your nothingness.
There is where your music gains its life.”
Or Katrina’s powerful performance of self-realization:
Here, with her fingers upon the in-between places, Katrina played a deviation that the instrument thought was wrong, the audience thought was wrong, that everything she had learned about intonation and harmony was wrong. Here, where even Aubergine’s resonance became cold and faraway, Katrina drew her bow across the strings, quickly, smoothly, roughly, flirtatiously, desperately.
Cursed or not, she drew her bow across as she would draw her breath. Queer or not, she would play with a cursed bow and be called an abomination. Trans or not, deviant or not, that did not mean that there was anything wrong with her love…
Standing alone, Katrina looked into the darkness and, from her own emptiness, her own hollow, played the music that she knew for herself was right.
Light from Uncommon Stars is an unusual work of SF. It treats a tale of alien refugees as only one part of the story, and it melds two very different genres into one cohesive narrative. But that unusualness is no fault in the least—it only makes Aoki’s book that much more impressive. It is a work of grace, of understanding, and a powerful testament to the powers of love and art. It is certainly one of the most interesting SF novels I’ve read in this beleaguered year.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020; this entry was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. No review copies were arranged by ARB.