I am going the confess here that I have been dragging my feet a little bit when it came to writing this review for this book. Light From Uncommon Stars was actually the first of the Hugo Best Novel Nominees that I read when the voting packet was first made available, and if I didn’t scrunch up and focus on my resolve this afternoon, it would have been the last one I wrote about.
This is one of the most unusual speculative fiction books I have read in a while, and this is coming from someone that usually goes out of their way to find anything willing to juggle with new ideas and quirks in the narrative. It is also a book that is very very hard to describe without giving too much of it away, and I really think new readers would get the most enjoyment out of it if I don’t give away too many details.
(I’m trying to reveal no more of the plot than the blurb does.)
The main relationship in Light From Uncommon Stars is between a student and their teacher. Shizuka Satomi is a former violin virtuoso who has taken a back seat later in her career to mentor six younger violin prodigies. All of her students soared to great heights. And all of them suffered from violent, premature deaths. With talk that Shizuka may have made a literal deal with the devil, she has earnt herself the moniker ‘Queen of Hell’
At the same Shizuka time is returning to Los Angeles, self-taught violinist Katrina Nguyen is trying to find refuge away from her vile transphobic father. Before crossing paths with Shizuka, Katrina was surviving via a mixture of couch surfing and prostitution. But a chance meeting between the two at Shizuka’s favourite duck pond leads to Katrina being taken under her wing. Worryingly for Katrina, there’s some truth behind the rumours that Shizuka is pulling a wee bit of a Faust, and there is a real risk that her soul could be the seventh sent to hell.
This in and of itself would make for a potentially compelling speculative fiction story. But alongside Shizuka and Katrina, Aoki introduces us to Lan Tran the mother of a family of refuges who have decided to settle in Los Angeles to run a donut shop. But unlike most shops LA, Lan’s donuts are generated by the matter replicator of her grounded starship—it turns out the family running Starrgate Donut are fleeing a threat that is not from this earth. She too catches the attention of Shizuka Satomi—along with her affections. So while Katrina Nguyen pursues her musical goals, Lan Tran pursues the art of baking in order to make donuts the more traditional way.
Not since All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders have I read anything at has shown a such blatant disregard for genre conventions. I have mentioned in the past that I am a big fan of a good genre mixup and keeping things weird. So I was shocked that Light From Uncommon Stars had not crossed my radar earlier. Curiously though, these speculative fiction elements are mostly just window dressing for a story about belonging and love. Almost all of the characters, not just the three main leads, but so many of the peripheral characters as well, are immigrants or children of immigrants who are trying to elk out a place both in LA and in society as a whole. And along with the very obvious love motives— Shizuka and Lan’s relationship; Katrina learning to love herself—we are also exposed to the author’s love of the violin, of the city of Los Angeles, and of food. There is a ton of passion in the writing here, and it is really, really lovely to read through. With these quiet little moments describing Katrina’s love of video-game music, the details of the little nooks and crannies of LA, or the description of delicious pork buns being served from a burger joint, Aoki lulls you in while serving you warm fuzzies in the shape of donuts.
I really felt I could not convey this myself, so I’ve left an excerpt:
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.
Aoki could challenge George R R Martin in a food-porn fight, right?
On the other hand though, and forgive me if I make another comparison to All the Birds in the Sky here, I think because this book is trying to be so many things at once, things sometimes feel a little disjointed. And the narrative—while often lush and welcoming—sometimes sufferers from severe breaks in its flow. Some of the Sci-Fi aspects really are not detailed at all, which contributes to the feeling that they are only there for the window-dressing and not to add extra depth to the story. There are also several side characters who I felt were being built up to contribute more to more to the plot, but then were dropped by the wayside. I also experienced a touch of emotional whip-lash between the sweet, soft feelings I mentioned above and the brutal details of what Shizuka has done in the past, or what Katrina feels she needs to do to secure her short-term survival.
So while I loved many, many aspects of Light From Uncommon Stars and was charmed by the passion behind it, I have been wavering a bit on the craft. Aoki is a highly skilled writer and her prose is just fantastic, , but she is really trying to take on a lot narrative-wise here. While my scoring has been wavering back and forth for weeks on this one, I think I have it as a three-and-a-half. It is not perfect. But it is perfectly delightful.
And I don’t know how concrete that rating will stay!
For bingo, this book could fit into many, many squares. But I am going to pick Dough.