Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For a while, I wasn't sure about this book. It's written in a style I usually find very offputting--the omniscient narrator--and it's structured in a rather peculiar way, as the author freely headhops every few paragraphs on every single page. There is a line space for every change of POV, but I still felt my head whirling back and forth as if it was on a turntable. This grew very irritating in a couple of places--I thought, for frak's sake, can't you do even a single page in one character's point of view?--but I persisted. And lo and behold, the characters started growing on me in a big way. The author's skill with characterization is remarkable, and it soon overcame my objections.
This is a mashup of science fiction and fantasy, and even the "science fiction" at times borders on the absurd, in the manner of Dr. Who and the original Star Trek series. There are aliens fleeing a galactic empire they fear is collapsing, and hiding on this obscure planet called Earth in an attempt to save their family. Lan Tran, one of the three main characters, is the captain of this crew and family, and in her gambit to hide in plain sight, she disguises her family as human (their real forms have extra joints in funny places and plum-colored skin) and ends up buying, of all things, a donut shop. (There are a lot of mouth-watering descriptions of food and baking in this book, both to depict the setting and propel the plot.) The second main character is a former famous violinist and now teacher, Shizuka Satomi, who has a time-sensitive problem: forty-nine years ago she sold her soul to Hell, and she can only redeem it by delivering the last of seven promised students, students who take a cursed bow and give their souls away to attain their wildest dreams. (Yes, her demon appears, both in a mostly human form and as a ball of fire and sulfur at the climax.) She has one year remaining on her contract before she will be dragged to Hell if she does not deliver, and she has yet to find a student she considers worthy to teach--and manipulate into fulfilling the contract.
The final main character is Katrina Nguyen, a beaten, battered and abused trans girl who finally can take no more and runs away from her non-accepting family. She took violin lessons when she was younger, and was told by her teacher she had a rare gift--but her father refused to accept his child's playing and who his child was, and smashed Katrina's first violin. She was eventually able to save enough money to buy a violin off Ebay, but when her father threatened to kill her, she left. She goes to Oakland, hoping to stay with a former classmate, but he is not very happy to see her and asks her to come back later. So she goes to a park to while away the time--the same park where Shizuka Satomi also visits, and comes across Katrina and her violin on a bench.
This fateful meeting sparks this lovely story of love, identity, music, and acceptance, marked by beautiful prose and deep and thoughtful characterization. There are lush descriptions of both food and music, and all the characters are wrapped up in and revealed by their reactions to both. You wouldn't think a tale of a demon-bound teacher on one hand and an alien from an imploding galactic empire on the other would work, but it does. This is also a hopeful, uplifting story, as Katrina grows from a frightened girl afraid of existing to a confident woman who plays out her life's story through her music; and Shizuka Satomi changes from someone desperately looking for her final soul to Katrina's surrogate parent who will not sacrifice this girl she has grown to love; and Lan Tran meets both of them and realizes that though she must keep her family safe, she has a galaxy to save--at at the end, she and Shizuka set out in their starship's runabout to do just that.
If this isn't the best book I have read from all of last year, it's damn close. Please do yourself a favor and pick it up.
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