A spectacular, gut-wrenching beauty of a book.
Author: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Genre: Science Fiction, Epistolary Novel, Young Adult
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: October 2015
Hardcover: 599 Pages
This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do.
This afternoon, her planet was invaded.
The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.
But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.
Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in The Illuminae Files
How did we get this book: ARC from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
It seems a bit silly to say that Illuminae is one of the most fun books I’ve read this year given how genuinely harrowing a book it is. But it is fun. More than that, Illuminae is the super clever, scary, romantic, adventurous, futuristic space romp, fist-pumping female-empowering epistolary novel of my dreams. I am going to be merciful 1 and break it down for you WHY you should read the book.
But first, the basics.
It opens with a letter – to introduce a dossier covering the events that took place in the last year. It’s addressed to the megacorporation whose highly unethical behaviour has started a horrifying chain of events and sent by an anonymous organisation called Illuminae.
It starts with a break up. Kady and Ezra are at school and they just broke up when their planet – a little known ice covered planet in the outskirt of the universe that happens to have something a megacorp has interest on – gets invaded, a lot of people they know die, they eventually get rescued and evacuated into two separate ships. A small fleet is all now that is left of their home planet and they need to flee the warship that is coming after them. Kady goes into the Science Ship where her hacking skills will lead her down a rabbit hole of a conspiracy that might or might not be happening. Ezra becomes a fighter pilot.
Their main ship – the one who is run by an all-powerful AI in charge of their weapons and protection is kinda broken and they can’t space jump to a safe location just yet.
Then the AI – AIDAN – kinda goes crazy.
And there is a deadly virus outbreak that turn those who are infected into raging killers.
And then Ezra gets trapped and Kady is all like: I AM COMING TO GET YOU.
All this happens:
In the future.
In epistolary format.
If you thought, “HOLY CRAP, this sounds incredible”, YOU ARE NOT WRONG. It is incredible – especially because of all these seemingly disparate elements are seamlessly combined to tell a story about a young girl dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and who gets to be the main heroine of this piece.
And Kady is a fantastic lead: because she is a little bit broken. A lit bit scared. A lit bit lonely. And at first, you think she is into hacking for selfish reasons and it might be so but like all the coolest heroines in literature, things are more complex, complicated than that – and the moment when you think Kady has reached her limit, it’s when you realise the depth of who she is. And it’s pretty freaking awesome to have such a heroine.
Illuminae is an epistolary novel entirely made of documents: interviews, chat transcriptions, footage descriptions, blueprints and more. Now, this being an epistolary novel, it is part and parcel of interacting with novels of this type to question everything you read.
Like for example:
All the things that the text is not saying.
All the things that text is saying but who is saying it.
All the things that is leaving out. All the things that it’s included.
All the little details, all the breadcrumbs.
Two of the most important aspects of any good epistolary novel are 1) the epistolary element MUST be convincing and 2) the fact that the narrative is made of documents must somehow not detract from character development and emotional discourse.
With regards to the former, the authors made the right choice as to which types of documents to include here i.e. documents, files, that are collected post-events and not say, a journal written as they happen. THEN, there is also the fact that the book itself is a work of art. It’s visually stunning as the documents are replicated in all their glory. Therefore, the very structure of the novel works.
With the latter – I can’t begin to express how much of an emotional rollercoaster this novel is. Friendships, romantic entanglements, the self-awareness development of an AI are all covered here and in spades. You find yourself caring for the smallest characters and weeping uncontrollably at their fate. Above all, the two main relationships in the book – the romance between Ezra and Kady and the fraught relationship between Aidan and Kady – are off-chart incredible: tense, heart-breaking, hopeful.
The one off-note: I could have done with fewer sexist jokes from Ezra. Hello 2575, the 20th century called, they want their terrible sense of humour back. There are not many but it’s a sour note in an otherwise great novel.
In sum: the novel’s strengths are manifold; its charms, legion. The more I think about Illuminae, the more I think of those small, little details that make the whole such a pleasure to read. This is definitely in the run for a top 10 spot this year.
You know those mega-hyped books that get a TON of attention from big news outlets, are shoved in your face at trade shows and conventions, and have enormous marketing and ad budgets? You know how, oftentimes, those books don’t live up to the hype and you’re left shaking your head, wondering why did THIS book get all the attention?
Illuminae is a mega-hyped book, that did get all of the attention–butrightfully so. A spectacular, gut-wrenching beauty of a book, Illuminaeis a pitch-perfect epistolary novel and hands-down one of my favorite books of the year.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story:
In the year 2575, humanity has taken to the stars–both grand bastions of science and research, as well as backwater mining planets. Kady and Ezra live on one such backwater mining planet, Kerenza, which one fine day is invaded, bombed, and utterly destroyed by BeiTech Industries, a supersized intergalactic corporation. For years, Wallace Ulyanov Consortium (WUC, another supersized intergalactic corporation) has been illegally, secretly mining hermium for its own gain–and BeiTech, learning of this secret profit center, has decided to make a bold move of its own to get in on the action.
Right before the BeiTech attack, Kady broke up with Ezra–just a few hours later, her home planet is mercilessly attacked, her friends and neighbors are killed, and she and her now-ex-bf Ezra barely make it to the refugee ships alive. Three spaceships have come to the rescue–heavy freighter Copernicus, a science vessel called the Hypatia, and most importantly, a United Terran Authority (UTA) heavy battlestar, the Alexander V-78. Capable of self-generating ephemeral jump gates, carrying a compliment of Cyclone-class fighters, a payload of nukes, and armed with a state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence called AIDAN, the Alexander is the fly in the ointment, arriving on the scene at Kerenza and taking on refugees when it received a distress call from the WUC. Taking on heavy fire and casualties, the Alexander is crippled in the relief effort, losing the capability to create jump portals.
Kady, aboard the Hypatia, and Ezra, aboard the Alexander have been separated in the rescue–each finds their own way to contribute to the survival effort, as the three ships make a desperate 6-month run for Heimdall Station (the closest UTA way station). But with BeiTech’s dreadnaught Lincoln in pursuit, it’s only a matter of time before the outclassed Hypatia, Copernicus, and Alexander are overtaken.
And then, the Copernicus is destroyed.
Alexander’s Command assures the remaining civilians that it was an attack by the Lincoln, but something is very wrong with this story. Ezra, conscripted as a fighter pilot aboard the Alexander was live and in routine maneuvers when the attack on Copernicus was ordered…by AIDAN, the ship’s AI. Kady, who has taken to her own covert maneuvers aboard Hypatia’s computers and the cobbled fleet communication grid, is convinced that there’s more to the story than what she’s being told.
It turns out BeiTech didn’t just attack Kerenza with bombs, but with biological weapons–and no one aboard is safe from their effects. Desperate to save the one person they each have left, Kady and Ezra struggle to find the truth–before AIDAN, or the Lincoln, or the bioengineered disease destroy them.
Right off the bat, there’s A LOT going on in Illuminae–the book itself is just under 600 pages long, and told in collected military files, communications, AI narrative, and journal entries, among other assorted documents. It’s a glorious epistolary novel in terms of formatting and package alone (and I had the ARC!), and considerably more impressive when you consider the range of storylines, multiple plot twists, and harrowing emotional character arcs within. I have no special love for epistolary novels, but when these are done right, the effect is…well, at the risk of sounding like a complete cheeseball that Kady would totally snicker at, magical. The format IS part of the story, telling the story–Illuminae is a perfect example of FORM = CONTENT, of the near perfection of ergodic fiction (House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is the other book that immediately comes to mind). At first, and admittedly this is not for everyone, the censored swear words and multiple chat screens are kind of kitschy and silly, but then you start to understand characters more deeply through these chat logs and dossiers. You see the layers of protection and toughness that Kady builds around her start to peel away as she finds a new mentor; you see the relationships between Ezra and his new friends and fellow soldiers grow; you see the romance between Ezra and Kady rekindle as they work through their massive (but now so inconsequential) baggage. Most importantly, the chat transcripts play a HUGELY pivotal part in the outcome of the book. It is decidedly NOT wasted cutesiness–these logs make a significant, game-changing impact on the fate of the many souls aboard the Hypatia and the Alexander. (You just gotta be patient.)
I love the entrenched sense of worldbuilding and the feeling of futility in the face of the carte blanche megacorporations like BeiTech (and WUC, I suspect in the next book) have when it comes to real human lives in exchange for profit. The level of detail given to the construction and layout of the different spacecraft and their capabilities, the hacks that Kady pulls of the communications grid and exposing the truth, the manipulative freakiness of AIDAN… this stuff is all fantastic and makes Illuminae a step apart from so many other YA science fiction novels I’ve read.
Of course, the real reason why this book is so freaking awesome is not only because of its masterful worldbuilding and detail, and not only because of the plot twists (many of which I actually did not see coming). The real power, here, is the emotional resonance and power of the characters who make up the Illuminae files–Kady, Ezra, AIDAN, soldiers like sgt James McNulty, programmers like Zhang, captains like Syra Boll. All of these characters, the list of casualties near the beginning of the book, the scene when you’re watching Cyclone pilots fight to the death against Lincoln’s fighters–it’s so raw and powerful and gut-wrenching and desolate. It reminds me of Battlestar Galactica in the BEST ways (with a hint of Prometheus, which I loved by the way, in the relationship between Kady and AIDAN).
Illuminae is elegiac, and beautiful, and terrifying–HELLO SPACE ZOMBIES (basically)–and it’s damn near perfect in every way.
I loved it. I could go on and on and on, but I think I’ve rambled enough. In short: Illuminae is near perfect, and one of my guaranteed top 10 reads of 2015.
Read it. RUN.
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Thea: 9 – Damn Near Perfection and in my top 10 books of 2015.
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- Inside joke for those who have read the book already ↩