A Tonic Against Despair: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryko Aoki

Content warning: transphobia, abuse, sexual assault

One of the perks of having a wildly out of control TBR list is that sometimes you don’t remember exactly what a certain book is or why it’s on there. You just recognize its title and author one day in the library, and a little bell goes off in your head, and you check it out and take it home, not sure exactly what you are getting yourself into.

That was how I sat down to read Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryko Aoki. Completely unprepared for the wonder, heartbreak, and hilarity that was in store for me.

Tor Books, 2021

It is the interlocking story of several lives. There is Katrina Nguyen, a runaway teenage girl escaping an abusive family with nothing but a backpack and her violin. Fate delivers Katrina to Shizuka Satomi, nicknamed “The Queen of Hell,” a renowned musician and teacher looking for her seventh, and last, protégé. Shizuka Satomi is flirting with an attraction to and fascination with Lan Tran, a single mother who runs a donut shop that has a giant concrete and plaster donut on its roof.

So far, we have the makings of a heartwarming story about love, acceptance, and found family. And Light From Uncommon Stars absolutely delivers on that, in spades. But just wait. Just you wait.

Because you also need to know that Katrina’s music possesses a literal kind of magic. And The Queen of Hell Shizuka Satomi has made an actual deal with Hell—in exchange for her soul, which she sold decades ago—she will deliver seven fresh new souls in her place. She has already provided six, and Katrina is to be her seventh. Oh, and Lan Tran, the Donut Lady, is actually a being from another planet fleeing an intergalactic war, her oldest daughter is a holographic projection, and the giant donut is being transformed into a stargate.

Yeah.

It’s absolutely bananas, and yet the book also grapples expertly with very real and very dark things. Katrina’s story will shatter your heart in several places. As a trans girl without any supportive people in her life, the narrative shows her being abused, raped, bullied, deadnamed, and denied her right to exist authentically in the world. There is no quick fix for Katrina—in order to trust that she is safe, in order to be able to live fully and to be happy, in order to reach her full musical potential, she has to slowly, slowly relearn the things she has been taught about herself. It is both lovely and painful to read.

From the darkness, Katrina willed her violin to build their world. To let there be light, let there be colors, then calculus and molecules and starlit vistas, let there be home after home after home where no one yelled and no one was beaten.”

Light From Uncommon Stars, Chapter 22

There is a strong thread running through this book of despair and hope. Without giving away any spoilers, there is a recurring suggestion that existence may actually be hopeless and full of sorrow. This is a notion that must be constantly, vigilantly worked against, and both the characters and the author do this in the face of pain and hurt and fear. They don’t always get it right, but they work at the things that are possible to do in the face of this despair: they build relationships and they lean on each other. They keep striving to express themselves—they make music; they make donuts.

I see this book itself, in a meta kind of way, as another expression that wards off the despair described in its pages. With its huge heart combined with its smile-inducing absurdity, Light From Uncommon Stars does just that.

Illustration of Shizuka Satomi with one of Lan’s giant donuts by @ace-artemis-fanartist. Used with permission.

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