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Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


I picked up this book completely on a whim. It was on sale, the preview pulled me in, and my friends were talking about it, so – why not? Why not try and see? And for once, I don’t regret experimenting.  While maybe not technically perfect, it’s one of those books I couldn’t stop reading and reading whenever I picked it up.

The NetherTale offered a scenario where a player would rescue people from Hell—yet not hurt anyone at all. Might one live that way? Until recently, Shizuka would have dismissed the suggestion as naïve, a fantasy of the weak and sheltered, those who had never fought or known loss. But nothing in Katrina’s background suggested she was weak or sheltered. As for loss? Her music did not lie. She was fighting with an abandon that only came from loss.

Katrina Nguyen is a runaway, escaping her transphobic, abusive family. Her untrained but clearly talented playing catches the ear of Shizuka Satomi, a violin teacher who has to deliver a seventh soul to Hell to save her own. In addition, their story intertwines with that of Lan Tran, an alien who escaped war on her home world with her family and opened a donut shop.

The story’s main issue is obvious from a mile off: the tonal dissonance. Especially in the beginning, switching from the POV of Katrina, who escapes her terrible family, only to land with a “friend” who goes on and on about queer rights and veganism but keeps making racist jokes, breaks her violin, forcefully kisses her, and generally treats her like shit (not to mention the danger of sex work she does to get money), to Lan’s quirky, lighthearted POV focused on making the perfect donut and awkwardly flirting with Shizuka…well, it’s jarring to say the least. 

Nevertheless, I found myself enchanted. Despite the rocky beginning, it gets a lot better as Katrina accepts Shizuka’s offer and lands in a safer, more supportive environment. It doesn’t magically become a light book when the tonal dissonance mostly goes away – there’s still transphobia and racism and strangers being shitty and lots of trauma – but there’s also found family and Katrina slowly gaining confidence and starting to find her own voice. I’m not generally a very emotional reader, but the sections when Katrina performs got to me. Shizuka, for all her deal with Hell, is very caring, and if you suspect she’ll have a hard time with it, you’d be right.

Another thing I must mention is the setting. It’s very Asian-American and all the food mentioned sounds delicious. And then there is Lan’s donut shop with all its donuts. I heard that reading this book will make you crave donuts, and it’s correct. Don’t read while hungry. Though even reading while full won’t help you escape the donut cravings. Just cave in and get some in advance 😂🍩

In the end, Light from Uncommon Stars might not be a book where all the elements fit well together, it might be trying to do a little too much at the same time, but it’s compelling and genuine and full of heart. And to me, that was quite enough. Recommended. Along with donuts.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 3.5/5

Recommended to: music nerds, foodies, if heavy but ultimately hopeful is up your alley, anyone looking for something very queer and Asian-American
Not recommended to: anyone unprepared to crave donuts, those who’d have issues with the tonal dissonance at the start, also heed the content warnings

Content warnings: abuse, sexual assault and harassment, MC forced into sex work, transphobia and racism (including slurs), self-harm

3 thoughts on “Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki”

  1. I recently finished reading it! I thought it was beautiful, but I was also disappointed that so many things felt like they were left hanging (Markus??) and the food and music descriptions were great and yet the characters were lacking something.

    I was sad that Shizuka didn’t find a way to save the other 6 souls from hell. I thought that was where they were headed with the references to saving people in the video game.

    Liked by 1 person

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