What does a violin teacher from Hell, a trans runaway, and an alien donut shop owner have in common? Well, I was skeptical too, but then I read Light from Uncommon Stars and now I feel like anything is possible. Thanks to Tor Books for the gifted book.
Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.
When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.
As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.
This book is incredible. Full stop.
Beautifully written and smartly displayed. It gave me TJ Klune and Becky Chambers vibes. It gave me donuts and so much delicious Asian food. It made me think of my violin-playing youth. And it was a massive love letter to the Asian communities of LA. I honestly was so astounded by the beauty, the embrace, and the creativity this book provided. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year.
I don’t even know where to begin with how to explain my feelings. Let’s start with the characters. There are several different characters that this book follows, but the main ones are Lan, an interstellar alien trying to escape from a deadly plague that’s ravishing star systems around the universe. She’s escaped to Earth where her family work to rebuild their ship and as a cover they run an old donut shop. Shizuka was a violin virtuoso back in the day, but not anymore. In fact, she’s spent the last 49 years cultivating young violin students, bringing them great fame and fortune, only to lose them all to tragic ends. Why? Because she works for the devil and collecting the souls of virtuoso is what she does. Katrina is a young trans youth who’s recently run away from home. Without a place to stay, money to get food, or anyone to turn to, she’s made her way doing sexual favors. That is, until one day, when Katrina plays her violin in the park and Shizuka just happens to hear.
The story surrounds these three individuals and their lives become more and more intertwined learning about each other, themselves, and what they’re all capable of doing when given a little bit of love. The beauty of this story is surrounding their relationships and how they each grow so drastically in the pages within. Honestly, it’s so incredible reading this book and watching how these people become the people they’re supposed to be.
Of course, the story wasn’t without its truths. There was a lot of heartbreaking depictions of Katrina as she struggles with being loved by someone unconditionally, with coming-to-terms with what’s happened to her in the past, and how she finds herself through her music and the support of Shizuka and Lan. But there were also some uplifting moments where Katrina and Shizuka’s relationship really made you believe in the good of people; even if they’re actually conditioning their souls for the devil.
It was interesting to see Shizuka grow as well because she’s been literally grooming children for death and eternal damnation. To see her change little by little with Katrina just makes you think there’s possibility for bad people to be good again. And Lan, she changes immensely as well. Coming from a pragmatic people who don’t understand why people would want a variety of donut flavors or why they waste their time with video games, you see how important these things are to humans and how this level of entertainment can be the exact thing the universe needs to keep moving forward.
Then, there was the violin play. Honestly, the violin was its own character in this book. As someone who has played violin for 10 years of her adolescent life, actually played Schradieck and tried her hand at Paganini, these violin references were SPOT ON. Even down to the kinds of bridges used and the kinds of sound the instrument can make if you use the right strings. It’s literally so accurate that I thought Ryka Aoki was a long-time player like me. It was surprising when I realized that Ryka Aoki doesn’t actually play the violin. She really fooled me because she had everything from the makers of violins to the differences a bow can make read like she was as experienced at the violin as Shizuka was.
The descriptions of the violin reminded me so much of The Red Violin; one of my all-time favorite movies. It was this idea that the violin held someone’s soul and the music it played was seductive, embracing, and completely spell-binding. There was something free and beautiful about the violin that everyone coveted it and throughout the movie, you see how it makes its way around the world and touches everyone that plays it. You can watch the trailer here. So much of that feeling was deeply held to the violin parts in this book. I was honestly so moved by the way Ryka Aoki wrote the violin and the way it touched both Shizuka and Katrina’s lives.
The ending is where you see everything come together. Honestly, I was so surprised. I had a feeling the ending would go a certain way; an ultimate sacrifice, but then it was completely thwarted and put a huge smile on my face. It was an incredible ending to finish off such an incredible experience.