Series: The Illuminae Files #1
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 20 2015
Genres: Science Fiction
Our reviews of this author: Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, #1)
I was lucky enough to land one of the nifty hardcover ARCs of Illuminae, and that made all the difference in my reading experience. This is definitely a book you’ll want to read in physical form, although I’d love to hear from someone who’s read the digital version, and whether or not it works in that format. As many other reviewers have noted, half the fun of this book is the way it’s presented, a smorgasbord of epistolary goodness in the form of email exchanges, illustrations, video surveillance footage summaries and much, much more.
The entire book is framed as a file compiled by the mysterious Illuminae Group, which provides proof of the horrific events that began with an attack on the small ice planet Kerenza and ended with the destruction of thousands of people. Little by little, the reader begins to piece together the characters involved and the events that took place on a fleet of ships comprised of the battlecarrier Alexander, the science vessel Hypatia, and the freighter Copernicus. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason are high schoolers living on Kerenza when the planet is attacked by a corporation called BeiTech, and in the confusion of the attack, they both make it off the planet on two of the three rescue ships that come to the planet’s aid. Kady winds up on the Hypatia, and Ezra on the Alexander.
But the relief of escape doesn’t last long, as the fleet soon realizes that one of BeiTech’s ships, the Lincoln, is after them. Even worse, the Copernicus reports that many of the crew on board are beginning to show signs of PTSD that rapidly turns the infected into mindless killing machines. An airborne infection called the Phobos virus is loose, and the Copernicus has just launched their escape pods toward the Alexander, pods full of infected crew members. Not only that, but the AI onboard the Hypatia has taken control of the ship. Can things get any worse for Kady, Ezra and company? Why yes they can!
This is a fast-paced story, despite the fact that it’s a 600 page intimidating beast. Kristoff and Kaufman have a talent for creating tension, and the brilliant thing about that is that all of the action in Illuminae has already taken place, and the reader is simply reliving it all through messages and files and journal entries. So, bravo authors! Each scrap of information we’re given is only a small piece of the puzzle, but that’s what’s so much fun about this book: taking all those pieces and slowly merging them together, until they form a picture of the terrible things that are happening in space among these four ships.
Yes, this is space opera, but you’ll notice I keep using the words “horror” and “terror.” This is a horror story at its heart, and I felt the same feeling of dread I experienced while watching Alien for the first time. There are terrible things aboard the Alexander, and it’s only a matter of time before every sane human on board succumbs to the Phobos virus—at least that’s what it feels like while you’re reading.
If you’ve read Kristoff before (and here I have to apologize because I have not read anything by Amie Kaufman prior to Illuminae), you’ll know that in addition to his flair for the dramatic, he also has quite the funny bone. Some of the dialog between the characters is so funny, and a welcome break from all the blood and viscera and…oh, did I mention the graphic violence? Anyway, FUNNY. I especially loved the emails/texts between Kady and a hacker named Byron. Their conversations are not only hysterical and snappy and loaded with military-speak, but heartfelt as well. The authors don’t skimp on the emotional moments, either. There were several side stories about Kady and her mother, who winds up on a different ship, and Ezra and his father, who may or may not still be alive at jump station Heimdall. The fact that these characters have not only been uprooted from their home planet, but have been separated from their families, added a nice emotional layer to the story.
Strangely, it was the romantic element that didn’t work so well for me. Kady and Ezra had just broken up before the attack on Kerenza, and now they’re running for their lives, and on different ships, no less. Given this set-up, it seems like a perfect way for two teens to fall back in love again. But for me, the switch from “I hate you” to “I love you” was just too quick. Yeah, I get that the clock is ticking and they have no idea how long they’ll be alive. I’m just saying, it wasn’t my favorite part of the story.
I also had some issues with the AI on board the Hypatia, AIDAN, who has lots of page time in Illuminae—maybe too much for me, since AIDAN’s voice was a bit overdone. Although, there were some very cool twists in the story, one of them involving AIDAN, but I much preferred the conversations between the human characters.
One of the—OK, I’m just going to say it—“gimmicky” things about the book is that the Illuminae Group has been instructed to censor all the swearing in the various documents, so large chunks of the text are blocked out in black. At first it was cool, but after a while I literally began to guess what the swear words were by the size of the black blocks, LOL! “Fucking” and “shit,” for example, are easily recognized, not only because of context, but because one word is longer than the other. I guess what I’m trying to say is that eventually, the censoring became a little distracting.
If you’re looking for a different kind of literary experience, then look no further. Illuminae is exciting, terrifying, funny and fraught with tension and emotion. Not to mention it’s damn fun to read. You’ll be longing for book two when you reach the end, and like I was, you may even be compelled to read it again to catch the things you missed the first time. Highly recommended.