I’m not sure if I identified more with the refugee starship captain from another galaxy, the violin teacher who made a lifelong deal with a toad-faced demon, or the transgender teen prodigy who brings them all together in Ryka Aoki‘s Light From Uncommon Stars. I know that their stories are instantly relatable even though on the surface it doesn’t seem as if there is much common ground. Of course, I don’t know what it might feel like to pilot a space vehicle like Lan Tran does, but she manages it all as a parent with her four children (and aunt) in tow. The notorious violin teacher, Shizuka Satomi, is so glamourous and accomplished it could be hard to relate to her experience but she shows vulnerability when she falls in love with Lan and becomes a de facto parent for Katrina Nguyen, the young transgender woman who becomes her student. They are three different women with different personalities and stories, but as their lives intertwine the book becomes harder and harder to put down.
Their three lives intersect in San Gabriel Valley where Katrina had hoped to find a safe place to live when she ran away from home. As a person accustomed to needing an escape she had a ‘go bag’ prepared for that moment when she could no longer endure her father’s cruelty. Katrina has already lived through several lifetimes of inhuman treatment from parents, classmates, and strangers by the time she meets Shizuka Satomi so her hesitation to accept the offer of private violin lessons comes from deep mistrust of others. Her suspicion isn’t unfounded because Shizuka is hiding the fact that she is looking for one last student to fulfill a deal she made with the underworld to deliver seven souls to save her own. Having spent almost a decade away from the U.S. looking for her next student, Shizuka is also rebuilding connections within the local music scene and makes a pitstop at Stargate Donuts. It’s also the home and business of Lan and her family, as well as a front used by intergalactic travelers for various activities – they use the sounds from their industrial mixers and ovens to mask the work that they are doing behind-the-scenes. Shizuka’s first meeting with Lan is rushed but Lan’s children notice a difference in their mother’s behaviour right away and Shizuka, despite protestations of being ‘too busy’, returns to the doughnut shop hoping to see her again.
The romance between Lan and Shizuka, the friendship between Katrina and Lan’s children, and the growing relationship between Shizuka and Katrina are the light that balances the darkness in this story. Shizuka is wrestling with the idea of sacrificing Katrina’s soul to the demon Tremon, Lan is raising her children with a constant worry that they will be forced to return to the violence of their home planet, and Katrina has flashbacks of cruel treatment in her past while dealing with moments where she continues to be misgendered, misunderstood, and feels anxiety over her safety.
The connections of these three women and the sacrifices they make to provide support and comfort to one another are what make the novel a treat to read. Lan’s children are struggling to make the restaurant a success and are also trying to acclimate to Earth’s culture, while Katrina and Shizuka work together to select music that best showcase her talents. They are all generous with one another while these efforts are ongoing, and find ways to see the other’s perspective and forgive each other when there are misunderstandings.
There are also secondary characters who would have been just as interesting as these three main characters; Shizuka’s housekeeper Astrid who is always surprising Katrina with her talents, the master luthier Lucy Matía who owns a cursed violin repair shop, and Lan’s oldest daughter Shirley. I would happily read a novel centred around any of these women; there is so much more that I would like to know about their current lives. Or, even a prequel, to learn what life was like for the Tran family before they came to Earth. Sign me up!
The author has filled this novel with lush language about food, fashion, the natural world, and music. At many times it’s so relaxing to read (except for the possibility of soul sacrifice). With two main characters who are world-famous violinists we would expect nothing less than evocative language, but when Shizuka, Katrina, and others describe how they feel as they listen to music, it’s almost dreamlike. The same could be said for the author’s descriptions of the food that the characters eat and prepare. Stargate Donut is built on the concept that the Tran family will not have to bake their doughnuts, only ‘replicate’ them as they get on with their important work, and sell these successfully replicated baked goods to the public. It turns out that there is more to satisfying an Earthen palate then just reproducing something in that fashion and this sets off a small storyline for Lan’s aunt that could satisfy any fan of Food Network TV. For Katrina, having lived a life of fear and shame, the deliberate meals prepared for her by Astrid take on a significance we might see someone attributing to a grandmother or beloved relative and, having finished reading those chapters, it’s tempting to cook (or order in) some of the same comforting dishes.
Ryka Aoki makes magic happen with her descriptions of food, music and romance, giving this book a truly unusual flavour in speculative science fiction. Or is it science fiction crossed with a smidgen of magical realism? I can’t place it in the perfect genre but I know that the book was a sensational, satisfying read. The publisher suggests this novel is like Good Omens, and there are some elements that connect the two, like the nagging discussion of possible damnation and a quirky sense of humour about baked goods, but I think this book doesn’t need to be compared to others.
A book like Light From Uncommon Stars is one that you read through quickly the first time to learn that everyone you’ve fallen for is safe (and I won’t spoil it by telling you where they end up) and then turn back to page one again because you miss them so much you want to be with them again. You’ll definitely want to be right back in a doughnut shop that’s really a spaceship with people who love and support each other in the face of war, demons, and cursed violins.