YA Weekend: Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Aurora Cycle
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (May 7, 2019)
Length: 480 pages
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff have done it again. While Aurora Rising is no Illuminae Files trilogy (but let’s face it, we all knew that filling those shoes would have been an extremely tough thing to do anyway), it does bring its own brand of excitement and entertainment to the table, offering a solid YA adventure that should satisfy any sci-fi fan looking for a thrilling space romp.
The year is 2380, and at the prestigious Aurora Academy it is the eve of the Draft, which has been on cadet Tyler Jones’ mind for as long as he has been looking forward to graduation. As the school’s star student, he would have the pick of the best recruits for his squad. However, an unwavering sense of duty leads him to answer a distress call that night, causing a huge kerfuffle resulting in Tyler missing the most important day of his life. In the aftermath, he is left with a crew of misfits, the leftover dregs of the academy that no other squad leaders want.
Nevertheless, Tyler is determined to be a good leader, resolving to live up to his reputation of “golden boy” and to do the best with what he’s got. First, we have Scarlett, Tyler’s twin who joined the academy in solidarity with her brother, and likewise she has decided to stick with him now out of a sense of loyalty, serving as his squad’s diplomat. Next, we have Cat, an ace pilot who has been friends with the twins since they were all children. It’s also something of an open secret that she’s always carried a torch for Tyler, though all of them tiptoe around the fact. And then we have Kal, a member of Syldrathi race, an alien species affectionately referred to as space-elves. Kal, however, is no willowy sprite; he’s got a fiery temper and serious anger management problems, which is why no one else at the academy would touch him with a ten-foot pole despite his legendary fighting prowess. Also, we have Zila, the squad’s brilliant science officer, except she’s so volatile and prone to get trigger-happy that not even the promise of her genius can overcome others’ fears of working with her. And finally, there’s Finian, the team’s second alien member, of the Betraskan species. Frequently underestimated by others because of his impaired mobility which requires him to wear an exoskeleton suit for support and movement, Fin is a tech expert who is the best at what he does despite the massive chip on his shoulder. Together, the six of them make up Squad 312, our novel’s heroes.
But wait! There’s one final surprise member of team, a wild card no one anticipated until she made her presence known on the crew’s first official mission after stowing away on board their ship. This is Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, a girl who finds herself in an unfamiliar world after waking up from being cryogenically frozen for the last two hundred years. And as if this strange future wasn’t scary enough, for some reason there are hostile forces hunting Auri, and she’s also developing superhuman abilities that both terrify and fascinate her. As Squad 312 struggles to decide what to do with their newest crewmate, they also must worry about their own safety as Auri’s powers grow more dangerous and her pursuers close in.
First thing I noticed about Aurora Rising is that there’s something very Star Trek-y about its setup, which immediately biased me towards its story and characters. For one thing, I’m a real sucker for ensemble casts in my space operas and sci-fi adventures, and the motley crew of this book promised great and interesting things. I also liked how the authors actually gave our characters genuine personalities and background histories. I’ve come across way too many YA novels these days that promise diverse characters, but in reality, what we end up getting is a parade of diversity labels and shallow characters who are empty husks defined only by their race/gender/sexual orientation/disability, etc. Honestly, this gets tiresome after a while, not to mention it’s a bit insulting. Which is why I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read about Squad 312 and have them actually feel like well-rounded and authentic people who have experienced real emotions and lived real lives. And quite frankly, I would have expected nothing less from Kaufman and Kristoff, who have already shown us they can write amazingly well-developed characters with their Illuminae Files series.
But while I would have no hesitation whatsoever recommending Illuminae Files to anyone, regardless of their age, I do have to mention that Aurora Rising feels more skewed towards a younger audience, with a stronger “teen read” vibe. The characters’ attitudes, dialogue, and sense of humor seem to reflect this. Like for example, the ridiculous number of times Tyler’s attractiveness was mentioned or how he was constantly referred to as “Captain Hotness” (I swear, if I had to read about his damn dimples one more time…) Then there was Auri’s annoying way of calling Kal “Elrond” and making endless stupid Lord of the Rings references. So if this is the kind of stuff that grates on your nerves, your eyes are probably in for some epic rolling.
The premise of Aurora Rising is also not as complex as any of the books in the Illuminae Files trilogy, nor is it anywhere near as unique. It’s pretty much your standard heist plot, but in space, and I’ve read better. Still, to its credit, this book is exciting, if a bit drawn out at times—though often when we get lulls, it’s because of character development, which is why I give some of the wonky pacing a pass.
All told though, Aurora Rising was a satisfying read with fantastically developed characters (in spite of all the snark) and a decent plot with well-written action. I truly did not think it would reach the heights of Illuminae, so I’m glad I kept my expectations realistic, but still, overall I am very happy with how this book turned out.