This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.
Overview of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki from the back of the 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.”
The eclectic mix of a transgender girl who just seeks acceptance and love, a space-traveling family looking for a new place to call home, and a powerful violin teacher who’s made a deal with a demon works far better than it at first glance might appear. I like books that fall between categories and genres and this one definitely does, merging the various elements, characters, and motivations quite well.
I felt that at times the boundaries where the supernatural elements came up against the interstellar ones didn’t quite mesh smoothly. Lan and Shizuka accept each other’s ‘secrets’ way too quickly, even considering they’re both fairly open-minded and accepting characters. A sequence towards the end that involved both the demon and a starship just didn’t quite sit right—the boundaries between soft SF and murky fantasy not quite well enough defined.
But I did really like that this was set primarily in the mundane, normal world, and that the supernatural/sf elements were an integrated part of the story but didn’t steal the show. The regular world, with its donut-eating ducks, violin music, fresh produce, and caring humans is the real highlight. Which is amazing for a fantasy/sf novel.
The strength of this book was in the characters. It was highly readable, and each main character had a distinct arc, even while the similarities between them allowed for clear resonances. Katrina, Shizuka, and Lan (and Lucia to a lesser degree) are out of place, seeking for belonging and purpose, and trying to protect something important. While I don’t normally relate to angsty teenage protagonists, Katrina’s character, situation, experiences, and choices worked really well and I didn’t find her becoming annoying (which I often experience with similar protagonists). Lan isn’t quite alien enough for my taste, but maybe that’s because I’m used to reading weirder SF. My favorite character is Shizuka, because her internal struggle is primarily a moral one and so watching her wrestle with self-worth, past actions, and the bind she finds herself in, were quite rewarding.
Most remarkable was the characterization of the secondary characters, from Astrid who is just delightful, to Lan’s children. I really appreciate that in order for each character to find purpose, they had to think outside themselves and work for the good of those around them.
Narrative Pace/Structure: 4.5/5
The pace of this book was excellent. There was no drag, nothing extraneous, and despite the many details (particularly about food) it never got bogged down in them. Each chapter brought a new turn, an added complication, or heightened confrontation. I didn’t find the ending to be very climactic, but it was satisfying and fit the story as a whole.
What didn’t work quite as well for me is how each chapter was chopped into little chunks, with numerous scenes, sometimes from different character’s perspectives. By itself, that would be fine, but then each scene was split by numerous page-breaks, often making scenes and chapters feel a bit choppy. While it didn’t detract from the characters or the story, it felt a bit like poor planning rather than intentional meshing.
This book was very sweet and endearing, while simultaneously dealing with some very horrid and disturbing topics (particularly around how Katrina is treated by some strangers, society, and online after she begins to become famous). I felt a few scenes early on were needlessly explicit; I don’t get squeamish when I can see the purpose of a scene, and while I see the importance, I think it ended up being more than necessary, considering the role it plays in Katrina’s character arc.
I’m also a bit baffled by Tor. This needed another pass by a senior editor, because there were a number of typos, missing words, grammatical issues, and even a short scene where a character shows up and speaks another’s lines erroneously. From a publisher the caliber of Tor, I’d expect better.
And yet, this is probably my favorite of the three I’ve read so far.