Heartbreaking in the Wrong Way: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Posted 3rd September 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Representation: Multiracial trans MC, sapphic Japanese MC, F/F or wlw
Published on: 28th September 2021
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
ISBN: 1250789060
Goodreads
two-half-stars

Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this defiantly joyful adventure set in California's San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts.
Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka's ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She's found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn't have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan's kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul's worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~AIs = BFFs
~gaming music is just as valid as classical music, you snobs
~make sure you have the right violin bow
~the donut shop is run by aliens

I feel like I should have enjoyed Light From Uncommon Stars much more than I did. I’m more than a little heartbroken, and feel guilty, that I’m not waxing poetic now, gushing with praise. On paper, if you listed out all the tropes and themes, all the delightful details like the the donuts, it reads like a checklist of everything I love.

But I just didn’t love the way it was all put together.

I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t love it, either – even though I thought I would, and wanted to so badly. I feel so jealous of everyone who did, does, and will love it – I wish I did too.

Sigh.

For a start, it’s super unfair to pitch this as Good Omens meets the Wayfarer series. That sets expectations way, way too high. But even if you say, well, Light has some common elements with both – demons and space-travel respectively – Good Omens is more coherently whimsical, and the Wayfarer books are deep, quiet, thoughtful feel-good sci fi. I think Light From Uncommon Stars wanted to be whimsical, and tried to do the deep-but-feel-good thing. But I don’t think it succeeded at either. The most whimsical part of the book is probably the donuts, in the donut shop that is secretly a sci fi stargate – but the writing is so bare and blunt that most of the time, the donuts are as appealing as rocks. And as for being a feel-good book, the story kind of lectures the reader about how uplifting music is and how we can always rewrite our song…but right up to the final pages Katrina, the trans character, is still enduring dead-naming and fetishization and sexual assault, almost to the point of misery-porn.

And I think the idea is supposed to be a) it is hard and often extremely sucks to be trans, and b) an attempt at empowerment – Katrina has done sex work and in that was holds power over those who see her as a fetish.

Which…sure? A lot of the time and in a lot of places, it can be terrible or at least difficult to be trans. And sex work absolutely can be empowering. But it’s a pretty bleak picture Aoki is painting here. These are real and important topics that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, but I never felt any real optimism or hope from the story. There’s no ‘it gets better,’ and if this were another book I’d say that was the point, that it was deliberate, but here it feels like the story was trying to be hopepunk, or at least leave the reader warm and glowing, and just…failed.

The climax of the book, the moment that is supposed to be Katrina’s triumph, is packed full of descriptions and explorations of transphobia. And Katrina is acting in defiance of all of that, I get it. But it deflates any sense of triumph. It doesn’t feel like a win. So…what exactly am I supposed to be feeling here, except depressed?

And all of this is written in what feels like a very simplistic way. The entire alien plotline, for example, felt picture-book simple. The way they talk to each other is…robotic, which I guess might have been deliberate? But there’s also the apparently random scene-breaks that appear every few paragraphs, sometimes mid-conversation, throughout the book – and often without actually jumping to another point of view or another scene. It makes the book feel extremely jerky, constantly stopping-and-starting, like a stalled car.

There’s so much lecturing. So much telling-not-showing. And some of those lecture-bits have beautiful lines in them, or poignant messages, but…they’re not fun to read.

I found the prose blunt and dry, the constant scene-breaks jarring, and thought the awfulness and attempted-whimsy undercut each other instead of somehow balancing or combining. And I’m sorry, because I wanted to adore this book so much. But I just don’t.

I do hope it’s wildly successful, because we need more books going in the direction Aoki was going for. I hope I’m just an outlier, and that you give it a try despite this review. I hope you love it the way I wanted to.

two-half-stars

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