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Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
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Book Name: Illuminae
Author: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Publisher(s): Knopf Books for Young Readers
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Science Fiction / Dystopia
Release Date: October 20, 2015

Illuminae was a good time from beginning to end. The plot itself is fairly straightforward – teenagers break up, teenagers’ planet gets invaded, teenagers barely escape onto improvised evacuation ships with a fraction of their population, teenagers are on separate ships, rogue AI (maybe), plague, hacking, and conscription, and it’s all in SPACE! If you’ve read or watched a lot of sci-fi you will recognize many tried-and-true tropes. I found it fairly easy to predict.

And yet, I still loved it. Sure, I guessed that the AI would go rogue from the moment I learned there was an AI that controlled all the ship’s systems, but I didn’t know how, or what it would do. I knew from the blurb that there would be a plague, but I didn’t know what kind of symptoms it would cause, or how it would affect the story. I didn’t predict the several twists which crept up on me. Most of all I had no idea how much I would love the way the story is told.

Instead of a traditional book set up in chapters with a coherent stream of narration telling the reader what’s going on with perhaps a few shifts of perspective and maybe a letter or two that a character reads or sends in-text, Illuminae is told completely in alternative formats. It’s set up so that what you read is a collection of documents curated by “The Illuminae Group” for Executive Director Frobisher. After the introduction the Illuminae Group only appears when they leave little comments on the assembled files, and Director Frobisher is a mystery until the very end. There are IM transcripts, censored words, emails, space Wikipedia articles, and text description of video footage complete with commentary. There are transcripts from interviews with the characters, journal entries, and detailed diagrams of the various spaceships involved.

The weird formatting has the potential to become disjointed or disorienting, but it never does. Instead it drew me into the story, creating an entire world of high-tech communication without actually having to say a word about it. I knew there was a hacker version of Wikipedia because I got to read a couple of articles from it. I knew what the ships looked like because I saw diagrams of them. It’s a creative version of that old writerly mantra: show, don’t tell.

The other thing the format did was restrict the narrative in a few key ways. Because most of the plot comes from IM transcripts and interviews after the fact, all of the information is intensely personal. The characters only know what they personally experience, and they don’t always tell the truth. It’s limited narration like I’ve never seen it before, and Kaufman and Kristoff managed to pull it off with panache. On the one hand, you know the main characters survive the story because some of the first documents are interviews with them after the fact. On the other hand, you know almost nothing else.

Though there are two primary characters, in my mind Kady steals the show from the very first and never gives it back. She a fast-thinking, authority-hating, pink-haired hacker who dumps her boyfriend because she doesn’t think he has enough ambition and drive. Immediately following this, her planet gets invaded and she inadvertently saves his life. Ezra spends the book entirely besotted with her, and although he becomes an excellent pilot and fighter in his own right he never quite steps up to the plate like she does. It became obvious to me fairly early on why Kady dumped him in the first place. He provides great emotional support, loves her to distraction, and cannot think on her level at all.

Where Kady intentionally flubs an aptitude test so that she will be overlooked by recruitment officers from the military, Ezra does well and begins training to be a pilot. Kady piggybacks on the private channels of important officers, plants bugs in the ship’s systems, and seeks out information when she’s sure it is being withheld. Ezra is basically incurious. Kady has to bully and push him into action when she needs his help. As the story progresses their relationship evolves, but it retains the dynamic of Kady as leader, Ezra as somewhat reluctant backup.

The climax of the book is long and glorious. I reveled in every single blood-soaked page, and let me tell you this, dear reader, I was not expecting quite the level of carnage that I got. “Be of stout heart, for the worst is yet to come,” might as well be this book’s motto and it’s great. There are not one, not two, but three major threats to the fleeing colonists: the ship that originally attacked them is still following and gaining slowly, their AI is badly damaged and may have gone insane, and there’s a mysterious and terrifying plague sweeping through the population.

Illuminae simultaneously delivers an action-packed, heart-thumping survival story set in the most unforgiving environment possible and also a very human story of people pushed to their limits. I had a fantastic time reading about all the grisly bits that come with war, but I had an even better time reading about Kady and her response to trauma. Time and time again she picks herself up and keeps going, even as the constant barrage of death and destruction starts to take its toll on her mental state. She never gives up. About halfway through the book there’s a one-page excerpt from her heavily encrypted diary that reads, “I want my mom.” In that moment she’s not a skilled hacker, she’s just a kid who has dealt with more than any kid should ever have to face, and she wants her mom.

It’s a sci-fi apocalypse story, but it’s personal. This apocalypse only affects a few people. The universe is in no danger. Humanity at large was never threatened, but the entire book reminds the reader that at some point it doesn’t matter whether you have just survived a nuclear missile or discovered that your dad died, either event feels the same. An individual, personal apocalypse feels exactly the same as universal destruction when the story is told from one person’s perspective.

In the end it’s a book about humanity and the importance of each individual. It is about the value of human life, and our ability to care for each other even in the darkest of times. It was terrifying and hopeful, touching and gory, inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. Read Illuminae, it’s a good time.

Illuminae will be out on October 20, 2015 in the US and UK.

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Rating: 8.5/10 (2 votes cast)
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, 8.5 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
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