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Review: Illuminae

I’m a little late to this train, but I’ve been meaning to read Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files (first book: Illuminae) for ages, and I’ve decided to get around to them while the last book in the trilogy is still fresh. I have now finished book one and can confirm that I’m interested in reading the entire series.

illuminaeAbout the book: In the year 2575, Kady and Ezra have just broken up on their home planet, Kerenza, when mega-corporation BeiTech tries to take Kerenza for itself by flattening its current inhabitants. Kady and Ezra escape– separately– onto different ships of the Alexander’s fleet. As BeiTech pursues the Alexander to eradicate the last witnesses to its crimes, Kady and Ezra adapt to life in a state of emergency aboard their respective ships, and eventually resume contact with each other. As one of the Alexander fleet’s three ships is ravaged by a mutating zombie-like disease, another experiences deadly difficulty with an insane Artificial Intelligence system, and the third, which was never meant to traverse space alone, struggles for survival after its crew has been gutted to aid the other ships. Ezra is recruited as a pilot and Kady finds a mentor in coding and hacking; both throw everything they have left into surviving, even if that means keeping the entire fleet alive by themselves.

“I’m sorry I didn’t write you back. I should have. I mean, when you say ‘I’m never going to speak to you again,’ you don’t think your planet’s going to be invaded that afternoon.”

First, let me rave about the layout. Illuminae is formatted as a file, a set of documents compiled on the Kerenza/BeiTech incident and its aftermath. The entire story is narrated through emails, reports, communication logs, online journal entries, data stream, online journals, etc. It utilizes different fonts, backgrounds, graphics, and more on the visual spectrum. There are no “chapters,” per se, but each document section is a sort of chapter unto itself, and they’re all delivered in addictive bite-sized pieces that flow easily from one to the next and make the book nearly impossible to put down– a bad case of the “one more chapter” excuse going on into infinity because there’s always such a short and intriguing section coming up next.

“She is a thief. A whisper. Melting through curtains of code and shadow like a knife through black water.”

Beyond it’s unique narrative style, I enjoyed the plot and characters immensely. What I didn’t love: the way this story felt dumbed-down in places, my biggest pet peeve with YA lit. For example, the surveillance camera footage documentations. There is so much extra commentary and guiding of the narrative being done on top of reporting what is actually taking place on screen that those sections felt totally inauthentic to me and not at all visual. Another example– the briefing notes. These little guide maps through the story felt like a way for the authors to hold the reader’s hand through the story, to shine their laser pointers on the details we’re meant to notice. (Note this time stamp. Remember that this person has appeared in this earlier scene. See how reaction X to event Y means Z.) Very little interpretation is left up to the reader, to which I say: YA fiction should not be approached by writers as watered down adult fiction. A younger target audience does not mean that readers can’t follow a story and make their own inferences.

And then there’s the AI system, AIDAN. I think we all know by now that “computer goes haywire, thinks it knows best, and kills a bunch of humans” is a tired plot line. I was worried when it seemed at first that Illuminae was headed in that direction, but AIDAN was a pleasant surprise. I actually disliked most of AIDAN’s data stream/narration because it didn’t feel much like glimpsing inside the thought processes of a super computer, but I liked that the book left AIDAN ambiguous– maybe it is acting for the greater good when it massacres thousands of people. Maybe it isn’t. That’s entirely up to the reader, which is a great move on Kaufman and Kristoff’s end.

“They are beyond me. These humans. With their brief lives and their tiny dreams and their hopes that seem fragile as glass.”

More I liked: the body count is incredibly high in proportion to the number of characters introduced in the story. Important characters die, which makes the constant threat of impending doom feel plausible and amps up the tension. Another YA pet peeve of mine is that teen heroes often put very little work into learning/leading and yet somehow they are the ones to outsmart and outlast the wisest of elders, without the reader ever really doubting that they’ll somehow save the day. Illuminae isn’t like that. It’s teens aren’t “chosen,” they work hard, and they seem to be at real risk.

“The universe owes you nothing[.] It has already given you everything, after all. It was here long before you, and it will go on long after you. The only way it will remember you is if you do something worthy of remembrance.”

It’s definitely a YA book, a little overly dramatic in places and full of flirting at times you’d think the characters would be more interested in fighting for their lives. But Illuminae is also a well-plotted story with a great layout, and if you’ve got any interest in YA sci-fi (or just YA or sci-fi) and haven’t read this series yet, I do recommend it. It’s a fun (but tense) experience.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I docked one for the narrative hand-holding, but I did really love reading Illuminae. I have a (maybe irrationally) low tolerance for zombie stories, but even when I realized halfway through this novel that the mysterious sickness strain was turning people into zombies I stayed hooked. I will definitely be reading books 2 and 3, hopefully soon but my to-be-read-immediately pile is really stacking up. I’ll probably be reading Gemina (Illuminae Files #2) within a month. All I know about the next book is that it maybe doesn’t feature the same characters, which I find myself surprisingly okay with despite the cliffhanger in this one.

Further recs:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, especially for readers who are straddling the YA/adult lit line. If you like a good space drama, you can’t miss this one. Brown’s readers are currently awaiting book 5 in this series and let me tell you the books just keep getting better. Cool tech, twisty plot, plentiful battle scenes, a little romance and a giant fight for equality– what’s not to like?

Have you read the Illuminae series? What did you think? Are books 2 and 3 as good as book 1?


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