What is it with the devil and violinists? Seems like his thirst for their souls is never slaked. In the 1700s, he made a deal with Paganini; in the 1970s, he went down to Georgia; and now the unlikely California city of El Monte offers up the latest additions to his infernal collection.
In Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, violin teacher Shizuka Satomi finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: As the clock ticks down, she needs to deliver one more soul to the Bad Guy Down Below or else prepare to take the hot seat for all eternity. She’s already turned over six violin students, each of whom traded their immortal essence for earthly success beyond their wildest ambitions.
Number seven, though, is a problem. Katrina Nguyen, a transgender teen runaway with a broken instrument and a broken psyche, isn’t motivated by the typical incentives (recording contract, concert tour, international renown) that made Shizuka’s previous students such easy marks.
Katrina isn’t the only refugee with a troubled past on Shizuka’s date card. Local donut shop owner—and starship captain—Lan Tran is on the intergalactic lam from a civilization-destroying phenomenon known as Endplague. After a meet cute, Shizuka and Lan embark on a friendship in which confidences are shared and mutual assistance is provided.
In a sense, virtually all of the book’s protagonists are literary examples of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which damaged pottery is repaired with gold, becoming stronger because of its imperfections. In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny. When Lan’s son is harassed by a hot-rodding local, the interstellar traveler derides the Earthling as “another primitive . . . who thought going 0 to 0.00000089469 times the speed of light in 6.6 seconds was something to brag about.” In another scene, when Lan marvels at a seemingly unending parade of breadsticks at an Olive Garden, Shizuka rejoins, somewhat incredulously, “But you traveled across the galaxy. The galaxy.”
Without straining the metaphor too much, Aoki gets every element of mise-en-scène note-perfect, and her prose is as exacting and precise as the techniques Shizuka is trying to impart to her young charge. Readers can feel the steam emanating from the kitchens of Aoki’s San Gabriel Valley noodle joints, hear the scrape of a freshly rosined bow across recalcitrant strings and experience the acute anguish of having one foot anchored in one world while the other is desperately trying to move forward.
It almost makes you wonder if Aoki made a deal with—naaaah. She knows better.