Light from Uncommon Stars
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Some reviews come easier than others, and I don’t know why. Ariadne was easy, and in fact might have been the fastest review I’ve ever written, because I was so disappointed that my thoughts hopped onto the screen themselves with minimal interference from me. Some reviews, though, take more time, either because the stories are more complex or my thoughts are more tangled, or both. Thus we come to Light from Uncommon Stars, for which I have extremely mixed feelings. I wanted to love it and mostly did like it, but, as seems to be my most common refrain these days, it didn’t blow me away.
Light from Uncommon Stars is a ball of jumbled storylines revolving around aliens, Hell, queer identity, and classical music. It is a beautiful mess with endearing characters and clear references to real-time Millennial music culture. (The inclusion of Lindsey Stirling, no matter how tangentially, was an excellent choice.) The writing is irritating – all the stuttering the characters do gets really old really fast, as does the constant repetition of the characters’ full names, and I think both could have been handled differently – but it tends to shine when Aoki is talking about music. Whatever I may think of her book, Aoki is clearly a musician. The writing is secondary, however, to my main problem, which is that this book is way too busy. The plot is so crowded that, as with Build Your House Around My Body, I thought it would be best to go by character.
The story begins with Katrina Nguyen, a young Asian/Latina trans woman on the run from her abusive parents. She runs away in the dead of night, taking her beloved violin with her, and tries to start a new life with her friend Evan. Despite her hopes, Evan turns out to be indifferent to her existence, and he tells her to come back later. Lonely and confused, Katrina makes her way to El Molino Park, where she meets local violin teacher Shizuka Satomi before eventually returning to Evan’s house. Evan lets her in this time, but she quickly finds that her quiet nature, combined with her trauma and her lack of other housing options, makes her an easy target for Evan and his housemates: the housemates regularly help themselves to her money and belongings, and Evan rapes her in the shower in exchange for rent. She finally snaps when the housemates pawn her violin without her knowledge or consent, and she leaves the house in a rage after physically assaulting Evan. Having nowhere else to go, she returns to El Molino Park and appeals to Shizuka, who takes her in at once as both student and guest. Katrina is unaccustomed to being treated like a human being, but she eventually grows more comfortable in Shizuka’s house under the care of Astrid, the housekeeper, who becomes the mother she never had.
Shizuka’s motives may seem altruistic, but she is in fact the aptly named Queen of Hell, an ultra-exclusive violin teacher whose students have all met terrible ends. As a young violinist with an injured hand, Shizuka sold her soul to the literal Devil in exchange for the ability to play without pain. Everything seemed to be going in the Devil’s favor until she exploited a loophole in their agreement and renegotiated the terms of her contract, with the result that her current contract requires her to provide seven souls in place of her own. She is currently in the forty-ninth and final year of her contract, and, with six souls safely stowed away in the depths of Hell, is looking for a seventh. If she succeeds, she will get her music back (Hell has deleted all recordings of her playing); if she fails, she will be dragged to Hell. Her contract is supervised by a toad-like demon named Tremon Philippe, who nags, micromanages, and sabotages her throughout the book. Shizuka has been searching for years for the perfect seventh soul, but has found none to her liking until she encounters Katrina, who – despite her lack of classical training – captures Shizuka’s attention with her natural musical genius. Shizuka immediately sets about grooming Katrina, but finds the task more difficult than she anticipated, owing to Katrina’s trauma and general lack of the cutthroat ambition that doomed her predecessors. She isn’t built for competition, as Shizuka’s previous students were; she’s happier making video game and anime covers for YouTube. She specifically tells Shizuka that she learned about Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” from an anime, and I can even name that anime, because Your Lie in April is the only reason I recognized the name of the piece. With patience, however, and with the help of donut shop owner Lan Tran and her family, Katrina cautiously flourishes under Shizuka’s tutelage.
Lan Tran and her crew, which comprises her children (Shirley, Markus, Windee, and Edwin) and her Aunt Floresta, arrived in Los Angeles fairly recently. Though the children think they are there for business purposes, they are actually interstellar refugees fleeing the Endplague that has already begun to consume their own galaxy. Their cover mission is to build a stargate, which will enable people to travel to Earth more safely and with less effort, and, to this end, they take over a Vietnamese donut shop, whose wares they create using the replicator from their ship. It should be easy money, but they slowly realize that people are not interested in buying perfect replicas of the same donuts over and over and over again. While Floresta begins to learn more about human food and experiments with recipes, Lan becomes more attached to human society via Shizuka, who stumbles into her shop one day in search of a bathroom. Their mutual attraction smolders quietly throughout the book, and, despite some misunderstandings, they keep coming back to each other. Lan’s troubles are not over, however, and they only get worse when Markus goes out on his own and murders two customers. (I mean, I get it.) Her worries increase further when Shirley begins to show signs of rebellion, and, though she tries to contain her, Shirley slips her controls and runs away.
Despite appearances, Shirley is not a living teenager; she is a supremely advanced virtual assistant program written by Lan following the stillbirth of her daughter Shirley. Out of all the twists the book presented, this one was the least surprising, and I’m not sure why Shizuka was so shocked to find out that the original Shirley was dead. I mean, come on. Nobody goes through the trouble of digitally recreating their child unless the original child is dead. In any case, Shirley flees to Shizuka’s house, where the Trans had previously set up a recording studio for Katrina, and stays there while Shizuka talks Lan out of forcing Shirley to add a destruct code to her programming. Even after it becomes safe for Shirley to go home again, she and Katrina remain close, and they frequently go out shopping together. Shirley later finds a surviving recording of Shizuka playing Bartók, and – after Katrina gains national attention with her music, and after she is maliciously outed by Tremon – works hard to protect Katrina from the worst of the comments posted on her videos by trolls.
Lucía is the current owner of Matía & Sons, a family-owned luthier business that has fallen to her in the absence of any surviving male heirs. Her son, Andrew, has no interest in the business, and Lucía herself has been so completely brainwashed by her father and grandfather that she genuinely believes she has no business handling people’s violins despite her obvious skill. She is on the point of closing the shop for good when Shizuka waltzes in and pressures her into fixing the violin that she and Katrina recovered from the pawn shop. They get off to a rough start when Lucía misgenders Katrina, but over time Shizuka and Katrina become regulars. After a while, Lucía accepts her role and reputation as a Matía and begins to teach Andrew, who has finally expressed an interest in the family’s work.
Tamiko Giselle Grohl
Tamiko is another young violinist, classically trained and desperate to model herself in the image of Kiana Choi, one of Shizuka’s most recent students (unaware, of course, that Kiana Choi is currently roasting in Hell). She and her teacher, Ellen Seidel, spend their part of the book trying and failing to get Shizuka to take Tamiko as her next student. Shizuka, who did briefly consider grooming Tamiko as her seventh soul, quickly rejects her when she realizes that she lacks originality. Tamiko later encounters Katrina during a public performance, but, aside from one glorious moment in which she screams at the emcee who ridicules Katrina’s identity, nothing ever comes of this meeting. Though we learn that Tamiko actively self-harms, nothing comes of that either. There’s no discussion or character progression, and the last we hear of Tamiko is when Tremon sets his sights on her at the very end of the book, with the understanding that he will personally persuade her to trade her soul for the fame she craves.
This is what I mean when I say that the book is too busy. It tries to do so many things, but, if we’re being perfectly honest, I think Lucía, Markus, and Tamiko needed to be cut out. Lucía seems like an antagonist, but then she’s not. She seems like she might become an ally, but then she starts getting too close to Tremon. She turns out to be a descendant of Nicolò Amati, but no, wait, Tremon’s just fucking with her. What was the point of any of that? Markus murders two people and is ready to kill more, but then Lan and Floresta put him in stasis, and he stays that way for the rest of the book. He’s not a fully realized character so much as a catalyst for Lan’s decision to go back to her own galaxy, and – by extension – her short-lived decision to add a destruct code to Shirley’s program.
Meanwhile, Tamiko seems like she’s set up to become friends with Katrina, but then they both go home and never see each other again. If there’s one place where the book really dropped the ball, it was Tamiko’s salvation. If she absolutely needed to be included, if we needed her there for the purpose of contrasting a violinist raised in a toxically competitive environment with a violinist who just plays for sheer love of music, fine. I can understand that. But there needed to be some hint that Katrina had a healthy effect on Tamiko. Even if they couldn’t be friends, I wanted Tamiko to address her mental health issues, scale back the ambition, start playing just for the fun of it. I don’t like that Tremon is hunting her at the end of the book. Yes, she’s a diva, and she’s angry and unhappy and immature. She is a child. I don’t believe anything she does during the course of the book should condemn her to Hell. Of course, with all that said, this was one of the funniest lines in the book:
Shizuka’s previous students were predators. Even now, Shizuka might take the Grohl girl, let her smell blood, give her the curse, and send her onstage with a mandate to kill.
I love Shizuka. She may be the Queen of Hell, but she is also a fiercely protective friend, guardian, and teacher to Katrina. She has Katrina’s back at all times and casually incinerates anyone who deliberately misgenders or otherwise harasses her. That’s not an exaggeration, she literally is endowed with supernatural powers through her connection with Hell. (Can we send her after Evan next?) She and Lan have the sweetest relationship, and I love where they end up. I love that Shizuka gives shelter and protection to Shirley when she needs it the most. In general I just really love the four principal women (Katrina, Shizuka, Lan, and Shirley), who – despite some seemingly insurmountable barriers, such as the lack of a corporeal body in one case – still forge wonderfully strong relationships. I was initially bothered by Shizuka’s apparent hypocrisy in rebuking Lan for trying to destroy her own child when Shizuka has unapologetically destroyed six, but, after some thought, I have concluded that their crimes are not the same. Lan was trying to destroy her child without that child’s consent; Shizuka had the full consent of every student she taught. They all signed contracts, and they all received exactly what they asked for, even if they might not have expected to die quite so soon or so horrifically.
Unfortunately, none of this is enough to excuse Shizuka for her role in their deaths; nor does it answer the fundamental question that hovers in the background of the story. Morihei Sanada shot himself. Claire Burke was stabbed multiple times by an unknown assailant. Lilia Tourischeva is missing and presumed murdered. Sabrina Eisen overdosed on drugs. Kiana Choi died in an institution. Yifeng Brian Zheng is suspected to have died of self-immolation. The world doesn’t know how he actually died, but Shizuka, who watched as he was fed to the flames of Hell, knows quite well. All of her students had record deals, tours, worldwide recognition. More to the point, they all had people who should have noticed they were gone. Over the years whispers have circulated and reports have accumulated, and Shizuka is now rumored to take souls as payment for her tutelage. If all this is known, why is she still allowed to teach? Why has she not been investigated, given that all of her students have died? Even if they committed suicide, shouldn’t a string of suicides be suspicious? Are they staggered well enough that people mostly forget in the intervening years, or does Shizuka’s contract include some sort of automatic misdirection that keeps the rumors from evolving into something more serious? More importantly, where are these people getting their information from? Rumors are one thing, but there are people on the internet who seem shockingly well-informed. Does Tremon go around handing out informational pamphlets to random people? I wouldn’t put it past him.
I also struggled with the Trans’ part of the story, which is narrated in such stiff sciencey language that it’s almost a chore to read. I don’t know enough about science or math to know if Aoki’s scientific jargon makes sense to scientists and mathematicians, or if she’s just picking neat words for the vibes, the way Dune seemed to do. All I know is that it doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, and I used to edit technical scientific manuscripts.
The issue was back-calculating the time signature of the proper continuum. But Windee had deduced that even if they were separate, they were still part of the same continuum; therefore, they could process the current space-time resonance through a transforming function and extract the discrete frequencies that made it up. In other words – the space-time variables.
I was with her up through “therefore,” but the rest of it looks like gibberish. Of course, all math looks like gibberish to me, so that may not mean anything. (I tried looking up transforming functions and discrete frequencies. It didn’t help.) None of this was enough to put me off the book, but it did remind me why I usually don’t read sci-fi.
While my overall impression of this book is favorable, my strongest feeling is that the story was too ambitious. We didn’t need the Matía arc. We didn’t need Markus to lose his mind. We didn’t particularly need Tamiko or Ellen Seidel, except to explain why more ordinary teachers keep throwing their students at a woman whose students are not known for their longevity. (Money. It’s all about the money. Or fame, which is mostly the same thing.) We really just needed Katrina, Shizuka, Lan, Shirley, and the homey little donut shop that happens to house a crew of alien refugees. All I wanted was a story about these women discovering each other, discovering themselves, and banding together to outwit Hell, and, though I did get that in the end, there were too many pointless detours that distracted me from the main story. Equally distracting was the bizarre emphasis on race, which played almost no role in the story, aside from some gross remarks by a handful of minor characters. I’m not sure what the point was in continually inventorying the different races present in each neighborhood, except to really drive home the diversity of LA.
Whatever the case, this book was lovely and heartwarming, but it was also somewhat of a relief when it ended. This is absolutely not the fault of the main quartet; I could read about them all day. Their stories are sweet and silly and heartbreaking and beautiful. They literally are such stuff as dreams are made on. If their world is a stage, they should be the stars, and for the most part they are. I just wish they hadn’t had to share that stage with so many others.