I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.
It follows three main characters. Katrina is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.
The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).
While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.
Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)
This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.
An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.
Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.
This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.
Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]