Book Review: Illuminae
Also by this author: Gemina , Nevernight , Nevernight
Series: The Illuminae Files,
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 20th 2015
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Illuminae is a book that has been on my To-Be-Read list forever. Even though I thought it sounded like it would be a great read, there was so much hype surrounding it that I was hesitant, having been burned by a lot of overhyped books last year. Last week, however, I finally decided I had put off reading it long enough and dove in….Wow, what a wild and intense ride! I won’t say that Illuminae is without its faults, but it’s such a unique reading experience and such an action-packed adrenaline rush that its faults are barely noticeable.
Equal parts science fiction and horror, Illuminae centers on Kady Grant, a high school student who thinks she’s having a rough day because she just had to break up with her long-time boyfriend Ezra Mason. Her day gets a whole lot worse, however, when her planet is attacked without warning and people start dying all around her. With everything in chaos and ruins around them, Kady and a few other survivors, including ex-boyfriend Ezra, are able to make their way on to an evacuating fleet of ships. The fleet, which has sustained some damage in the assault, takes off but is immediately pursued by an enemy warship. It becomes a race to see if they can make it to safety before they are taken out by those who attacked their planet.
Because so many perished on the planet, the ships are running with skeleton crews and so everyone aboard is recruited in some fashion, either to be conscripted into the military and trained for combat, which is what happens to Ezra, or if they are deemed to have other skill sets, they are trained accordingly. Kady, it is determined, has a knack for computers, in particular, hacking, and so that becomes her area of expertise. It’s all hands on deck to get the ships back up to full operating capacity so they can get to safety that much faster.
As if that isn’t enough, people on one of the ships are getting sick. It turns out that a biological weapon of some sort was released during the attack and some of the survivors who made it onto the fleet are infected. And to say they become sick is to put it mildly. While initial symptoms are chills, sweating, and fever, they quickly morph into something much more deadly. Those infected basically become violent zombies running around trying to kill their fellow passengers. Needless to say, it’s pretty violent and horrific.
In the midst of all of this chaos, Kady starts to get the feeling that their leaders aren’t being 100% honest and so she decides to use her computer hacking skills to see if she can find out the truth about what’s really going on. When she realizes she can’t trust anyone else, she turns to the one person she knows she can, her ex. Ezra is on one of the other ships, but with her excellent hacking skills, Kady is able to contact him and start unraveling the mystery.
What appealed to me most about Illuminae is that, first and foremost, it’s a survival story: “First, survive. Then tell the truth.” This tagline from the cover of the book says it all. I was engaged as soon as I read that and my brain immediately went into overdrive trying to decide what it meant – “Survive what? Tell the truth about what? What happens to the truth if no one survives? Is this some kind of cover up?” I loved all of the tension that this created throughout the story and of course the action-packed scenes as those aboard the fleet were doing everything they could to survive and make it to safety.
I also really loved Kady. She is such a badass. Fierce, feisty, incredibly skilled with computers, Kady is absolutely determined to find out the truth, even if she has to sacrifice herself to do it. I also love that in a reversal of the usual stereotype, she saves her ex-boyfriend’s life when their planet comes under attack, rather than the other way around.
I also actually enjoyed the romantic angle of the story as well. I liked the tension between Kady and Ezra because of their history, and I liked their banter. At times they were snarky and sarcastic, but it was also pretty clear they still had intense feelings for one another, broken up or not. And I don’t know, maybe it was just because of the sci-fi setting or maybe it was the snarky banter, but I almost get a Han/Leia vibe from them, which being a Star Wars fans, I of course liked. It would not have surprised me at all if they had popped up with an: “I love you/I know” exchange the more dangerous the situation around them got.
The book’s unique structure. The structure was just fabulous, like nothing I’ve ever read before. Instead of just being a straightforward novel, Illuminae is structured as a series of interview transcripts, video surveillance, classified files, instant messages, computer readouts, and more. It’s as if you’re reading all of the accumulated data from an actual investigation of what happened from the time of the attack through the fleet’s escape and all of the ensuing action. While it did make for a somewhat slow read early on as I was getting acclimated to the format, once I got used to it, I devoured the book and was fascinated each time I turned the page and saw a new type of document. Illuminae definitely gets bonus points for creativity here.
AIDAN. It’s hard to talk about Aidan without giving away too many spoilery details, so I’m just going to say that Aidan was my absolute favorite part of this book. Aidan is the artificial intelligence system that controls the lead fleet ship. He’s initially super pragmatic as one would expect from an AI, but then Aidan starts doing unexpected things and it appears that he is out of control. But is there more to it than that? I don’t want to give anything away but I was left wondering “Is it possible for an AI to have a coming of age moment?”
For the most part, I really loved this book. However, I was not 100% sold on all of the artsy pages that were randomly inserted throughout the story. Some of them were cool and complemented the actual story, but there were a few that just felt unnecessary, especially for a book that is already nearly 600 pages long. It started to feel a bit gimmicky to me, especially the ones with the words shaped like ships. It’s one of those bookish quirks of mine where when a book starts getting really long, I start questioning everything that feels like fluff or filler. Does it really need to be there?
If you’re looking for an action-packed survival story that has a touch of romance, as well as a truly unique format, I’d say give Illuminae a try. In my mind, I’m thinking it’s a great sci fi story for readers who don’t even usually enjoy sci fi.
RATING: 4 STARS
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.
BRIEFING NOTE: 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.