YA Weekend: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Illuminae Files
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (10/20/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
I went into this with no small amount of skepticism, as I do with most books that get this much hype before release. In spite of myself though, I found myself hooked. Basically I chewed through this book like its pages were made of sweet, sweet candy.
And in a way, Illuminae IS like candy – visual candy, that is, a feast for the eyes. I originally started out with a digital galley of this book, and then later, through the generosity of a couple bloggers, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a physical copy of the hardcover ARC. And seriously, it’s gorgeous. All the pictures I’ve seen of this bad boy from conventions and on social media don’t do it an ounce of justice. Quite simply, Illuminae is as much a book as it is a work of art. That’s what I really want to say about its presentation. You don’t so much as read it as experience it.
That said, you should know this is not a convention novel. It is presented in an epistolary format (which is looking like a growing trend in Young Adult fiction these days) written as a series of documents. Think works like Dracula or World War Z. However, when it comes to the variety of document types, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that takes it as far as Illuminae, which makes use of everything from emails, interviews, journal entries, instant messaging logs and video transcripts to more unconventional media like starship schematics, medical reports, and even “Unipedia” webpages and more besides. It’s a futuristic sci-fi novel, which lets the authors go to town and draw from so many different ideas. In many ways, it’s this variety which made this book such an addictive read, because there’s always something different on the next page and the story never lets you fall into a rut.
Still, interesting format and fantastic art direction aside, right now you might be wondering: Yeah, but is the story worth it? Here’s the rundown: Illuminae follows a pair of high school students, Kady and Ezra, who break up the morning their planet was invaded. Talk about poor timing. It is the year 2575 and whole galactic empires are ruled by megacorps, and the two teenagers just happen to reside on Kerenza, a small ice planet on the edge of the universe involved in a secret and illegal mining operation by one of these corporations. Rival corp BeiTech descends upon them, destroying the Kerenza settlement, leaving thousands dead and on the run. Kady and Ezra are among the lucky (unlucky?) survivors who end up on the Alexander fleet, made up of the three ships that came to Kerenza’s rescue.
Damaged and crippled, the fleet limps away towards the closest jump gate more than half a year away, while an enemy dreadnaught follows in hot pursuit, determined to leave no witnesses. But when it comes to the refugees’ problems, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Exposed to some of the biological weapons BeiTech used in their attack, many of the survivors come down with a highly contagious plague which turns its victims into mindless, savage husks. To make things worse, several systems on the Alexander were also damaged beyond repair, resulting in a crazed AI running the ship. Through it all, Kady and Ezra are starting to realize just how tiny and insignificant their problems were back in their simple, sheltered lives on Kerenza. After all this death and destruction, all they have left is each other.
No doubt if you’re a regular reader of sci-fi, a lot of plot elements will feel familiar to you. In a way, the format of the book carried a lot of the story for me, the clever layout and the visuals keeping me going especially at the beginning when the premise was still being established. A lot of the conflicts, from the pursuing enemy ship to the deadly plague, are pretty standard for the genre, and in fact I had myself an eye-rolling “REALLY?” moment when the Phobos virus and its zombie horde-like symptoms were introduced.
Once again though, what blew me away me was not so much the ideas themselves but the way they were presented. I’m also incredibly impressed at the sense of urgency the story conveyed, quite an achievement considering the intimacy and personal touch you lose with the characters when you utilize the epistolary format, because so often you are not actually “in their heads”. Many times while I was reading this, I was brought to mind the scenes from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series where surviving Colonial citizens and military members in the fleet were counted down on a stark whiteboard as the episodes progressed, lending a certain gravitas and desperation to the Alexander fleet’s dire situation.
Oh, and that climax. Even barring spoilers, there’s really nothing I can say about it that will even come close to its expressing its sheer awesomeness. Really, it’s something you just have to read for yourself. Oh wait, I mean…experience for yourself.
That said, there were some minor complaints. First of all, in all my years of consuming sci-fi stories featuring an Artificial Intelligence, I have never come across one that spoke in such gratingly purple, flowery prose. I guess it was supposed to make the AI creepy, but for me it just felt like nails on a chalkboard. The story also has more holes than a sponge (and a lot of times feels as fluffy as one), the space combat dialogue felt like it was lifted straight out of Independence Day or Star Wars, and the ending was also infuriatingly abrupt. However, this last point was before I realized Illuminae was the first of a trilogy, so knowing that there is more to come makes me feel a little better.
Small quibbles really, considering how much fun I had with this book. I was able to overlook many problems that would otherwise ruin a story for me. How much of that was due to the writing and how much of that was due to the format and pretty visuals, I can’t say for sure, but I would guess they contributed to my enjoyment in equal parts. If more traditional styles of storytelling is what you prefer, I probably would not recommend this. On the other hand, if this sounds good to you, I recommend forsaking digital or audio versions of this book and go all-out for the hardcopy, the way it’s meant to be read. I had a great time with the full experience.