Review: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016: Book #2

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Title: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1)

Author: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016

Genre: Young adult, dystopia, science fiction

Blurb from Goodreads:

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.

Illuminae - coverMy Review:

What an interesting format this book comes in! I was engaged by the confidential file release style of storytelling, it was interesting and let the story unfold in an unusual way. I will say that it is not very accessible, the art is gorgeous but hard to appreciate if you’re not great at holding books, or reading it on a phone screen (as I was). There were sections I skipped because I couldn’t zoom in to read some of the artistic text. However, I enjoyed the story so much that it didn’t do much to take away from the experience for me. I think this is perhaps something that the publisher would do well to consider for the future books – please keep the art, but please make it more accessible.

I really liked Kady as a protagonist, she was an interesting mix of typical teenage angst mixed with the trauma of having her whole life fall apart, both when the illegal colony was attacked and at several points while on the ship. This is an intense read – the suspense of the story is gripping and at times I found I needed to either put it down for a bit or keep reading because of the story intensity. I was so invested in finding out what happened, what was happening as the story unfolded. I thought it raised some interesting notions about AI, about hacking and government, transparency, authority and ethics in crisis situations.

I didn’t much care for Kady’s boyfriend, at no point did he come across as anything other than a jock that was largely incapable of an original thought, if not for Kady. However, that said the way in which the romance was portrayed, the having broken apart but finding that the circumstance and familiarity amidst horror drew them back together made sense to me. And, it also makes sense to me, that the crisis being all it was drew them even closer and more attached as time went on – especially given they were separated by being on different ships and so couldn’t physically get to one another (or grate on one another) in person.

The ethics of the story are complex (and spoilery).

— (spoilers) —

While Kady has a strong sense of the moral right and good thing to do, I think that the story provides good context for the other points of view. Is it the fact that the AI destroyed a ship in accordance with its programming to preserve the best chance of survival for the fleet based on its own logical deduction without human input, or the destruction of the ship itself that is the crime? Is it both? I appreciated that there was no obvious easy answer and that while Kady didn’t grapple with this herself so much, other people did and their points of view are presented as part of the documentation that tells the story.

— (end spoilers) —

Interestingly, the worldbuilding for this book is minimal – which works for the story. There is an illegal colony, there are ships in space – it’s a big area of space, and there’s a station the ships head toward the long way around because of damage to technology. We know little more about the greater context of the society (societies?) on a larger scale, how government and business and politics work, what races and factions are involved. It’s largely a mystery and while I wondered about it while reading, it’s not relevant to the story. Only what is relevant to the story and immediate situation is shared and it works to emphasise the insular nature of the tiny fleet clinging to survival.

The story could seem implausible, outlandish. However, I was reminded both of ‘Alien’ and also ‘Gravity’ while I was reading – and those descriptions could easily be applied to both of those media. What is also similar is the quality of the storytelling and how compelling it is – my suspension of disbelief was thoroughly engaged and I was absolutely caught up in the action, heart in mouth right to the end. And then I felt like I’d lost a friend because it was just ended and there was no more.

The book draws on tropes, the chosen one succeeding against the odds is probably the most gratuitous one. However, overall I think it executes the use of them reasonably well, and pink haired teenagers are hardly an unusual concept – it just seemed to be part of who Kady was and the authors successfully brought her to life for me, where perhaps in other situations the make up of her character might have annoyed or disappointed me more. The character relationships are presented as heteronormative, people as cisgendered and no one appeared to have any kind of disability. Similarly, I don’t recall any discussion of race and so the default may be assumed as ‘white’ given nothing is done to subvert or draw attention to this fact. Having noted these things and that I hope future books address these points. I also hope we get to see more of Kady in the books to come – I’ll be avidly looking forward to more in this series.

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