Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Book Cover for Light from Uncommon Stars by AokiLight from Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki (Tor 978-1-250-78906-8, 384pp, $25.99, hc) September 2021.

Good speculative fiction has long been a shell game. We think we’re escaping into a cool story about first contact, intergalactic wars, reluctant fulfillers of life-or-death prophesy… you know, stuff not about here. Or now. Until, of course, we realize, it’s all a gorgeous deceit: we’ve swallowed a heap of nutri­tious vegetables believing it to be dessert. By tucking social commentary beneath allegory and analogy, good speculative fiction lays bare hard points about this here, this now.

Ryka Aoki’s second novel, Light from Uncom­mon Stars, has tucked a lot of hard points inside the creamy filling of a custard donut. I’m not being cute, either. Much of the action takes place inside a donut shop. The donut proves an apt metaphor. Mixing first contact, intergalactic war, and an unlikely chosen one (with a bunch of other tropes, including demon deals, cursed objects, and stargates, for color and flavor), Aoki actually feeds us a story about what it means to be a woman, in the here and now.

Young trans woman Katrina Nguyen escapes her abusive family with little more than her treasured violin, a few dollars, and a lifetime of trauma. She heads to LA, not for ambition, but to stay with a kind boy she met at a queer youth conference the year before. She has no other options. Shizuka Satomi, celebrated, feared – notorious, even – violin teacher, lives with her maternal housekeeper, Astrid, in Monterey Park. Shizuka’s been searching the world for her seventh, and final, student. Her unfruitful quest is made more desperate by an impending final deadline. Unless she finds a worthy musician to offer Hell, Shizuka’s own soul is forfeit. Lan Tran isn’t who she seems to be. She’s pretending to be the matriarch at the helm of Starrgate Donut, known for the two-portion “Alaska donut,” but really she is the captain of a starship who’s taken her family light years from home to hide on Earth, protecting them from an apocalyptic war.

Every major character in Light from Uncommon Stars is a woman. The plot, how these characters lives intertwine, whether Shizuka will deliver Katrina to Hell, fulfilling her crossroads contract, and if Lan will succeed in keeping her family undetected and her donut business afloat, all are re­ally driven by an exploration of the ways in which women sacrifice themselves and others to survive, much less accomplish or be the best. The men are, well, tools (literally and figuratively); antagonists who antagonize, at worst, and are obtuse, at best. Katrina’s father smashes her violins as easily as escapes, robs and rapes her. Tremon Philippe is, actually, a demon. Windee and Marcus, Lan’s twin sons, are blandly clueless or develop itchy trigger fingers, respectively. Even secondary character, master luthier Lucy Matía, falters under the weight of her grandfather’s and father’s lifelong sexism as she singlehandedly keeps the family business alive and excels past even their virtuosity.

Now, to be fair, while the women felt like women, having authentic-if-not-exaggerated experiences (Katrina excepted, as I can only begin to imagine the internal and external struggles of transitioning as a woman of color, much less as one with no support), the men were less convincing to this reader. They are pinball bumpers, obstacles against which the main characters must react, dirt devils of chaos that muck up best laid plans. They’re two-dimensional “not-women.” Because of this, it’s hard to be of­fended, even as they do heinous things. They just aren’t real enough. Even Tremon, with whom we spend the most time, never progresses beyond simple demonic mustache-twirling. Structurally, the men act as part of the setting, the world of “not-women” that exists around the main characters, affecting the action like weather.

Overall, it’s hard to say I loved Light from Un­common Stars, but even harder to say I didn’t. Like I said, I love this kind of shell game. Watching Katrina grow from a terrified casualty into a hopeful woman capable of saying, “My voice leads,” is extremely satisfying. I was grateful for her representation, too. It felt like a gift to get close to the raw feelings of a young trans woman. And, surprisingly, I read and re-read the sections where Katrina or Shizuka expound on music, as well as the sections where the characters sink into recounting their memories – an astounding feat of style from Aoki, as daydreams, visions, and exposition on the abstract are where I (shamefully, honestly) skim. Ultimately, the end is where Light from Uncommon Stars fell apart for me. Readers with more optimistic constitutions will disagree, but the just-in-time happy ending felt too easy, the reverberations of evil too localized, and the prices paid for mistakes too inconsequential, given the sheer weight of the stakes. It winds up feeling much too sweet – much like an oversized donut.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.

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