Monday 8 August 2022

Hat on a Hat

One of the first things that an aspiring improv comedian will learn is this: Never put a hat on a hat.

Basically, what this means is that when you have a strong premise, it’s usually inadvisable to distract it by layering a different premise overtop of it. To put it another way, cognitive dissonance caused by disharmonious conceptual work will distract from strong material. Point is, if you have one hat … why do you need another hat on top of it?
This is an extremely well written
book filled with great ideas.
It’s unsurprising that Ryka’s other
works have been recognized
by the Lambda Literary Awards.
(Image via Goodreads)

Despite being an exceptionally well written novel filled with likable characters, and some very interesting ideas, Light From Uncommon Stars suffers from hat-on-a-hattedness. And this may prevent it from being at the top of our Hugo ballots. It’s a novel composed of at least two fundamentally separate narratives, and those stories might have been better served by being split into separate works.

The main story arc follows Katrina, a gifted but untrained violinist, whose talent blossoms after being spotted by Shizuka Satomi, a superstar violin teacher. Saddled with a surprisingly apt nickname ‘the Queen of Hell,’ Satomi needs to claim a human soul to free herself from a deal with the devil. Taking the young violinist as a student, Satomi offers a safe harbour from an adolescence marked by horrible abuse and neglect. Twinning musical and personal growth, Katrina eventually finds her feet at an open air concert, bringing the audience to tears with a classical piece (despite her passion for videogame music). The consummate entertainer, she adapts to meet her audience with a confidence that comes from self-actualization.

The anticipation builds as the reader is left wondering when, and how, Shizuka will be remunerated for her tutelage. Will she turn Katrina over to the demon Tremon, as traditional narrative would demand, or can a different future be negotiated? As a purely fantastical tale, Light From Uncommon Stars is well written and engaging, and gives us a main character that is easy to care about and root for. It’s strengthened further by deeply researched backstories about the emotional weight of violin production and ancestral gender roles that have disadvantaged women around the globe.

Recent documentary
Donut King provided
context that helped us
enjoy the book more.
(Image via IMDB)
On its own — with no aliens or spaceships — this would have been enough. But woven into this tale is another story about entrepreneurial aliens who have to learn the hard way that their food replicators are no match for an earthling palette. On its own, this is a satisfying science fiction story filled with alien tech toys: projectors that levitate their subjects, phones that scramble English into Vietnamese, AI that can substitute offspring, and weaponry that disintegrates humans and/or their memories. And this is all packed into a completely delightful narrative concept that could easily have sustained a whole novel. Instead, it left us wanting more. 

The novel could have stood on the rock solid foundation of a beautiful girl finding her place in the world, through the mastery of musical expression and the support of a found family.

While this profusion of distractions from the main story are in most cases entertaining, on their own, our group felt they could sometimes feel like clouds that blocked the light from the star.

We wanted more Katrina.

No comments:

Post a Comment