Book Review: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1), Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (2015)

February 10th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Can’t Stop the Signal

five out of five stars

CitB: stay on task, grasshopper. we let the Alexander burn us out of the sky, your red hot love will be subsumed by a bigger, hotter flame

ByteMe: how do you even function in society?

CitB: it’s a struggle

Before this moment, I have never wished to be something other than what I am.

Normally I try not to let myself get swept up in all the excitement over the Next Big Book; I’ve been burned one (or fifteen) times too many. But Illuminae? Deserves all the hype and then some. It’s a twisty-turny, roller coaster ride with a little something for everyone: action, adventure, romance, suspense, science fiction, horror. Zombies, spaceships, and an insane artificial intelligence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story starts with a bang – literally. The year is 2075, and the planet Kerenza is under attack. An illegal mining colony located far from the core, Kerenza is the site of a power struggle between two mega-corps: Wallace Ulyanov Consortium (WUC), which operates Kerenza, and its competitor, BeiTech Industries. Rather than report Kerenza’s illicit activities to the United Terran Authority (UTA) and bury the WUC in fines, BeiTech chooses a more lucrative and diabolical route: kill everyone on Kerenza and steal the planet for itself. Since it’s an illegal settlement, chances are that the WUC will write off the loss rather than report it to the UTA. That’s BeiTech’s gamble, anyway, and it’s a safe one. Only they didn’t wager on there being any survivors.

Enter seventeen-year-old Kady Grant and her boyfriend Ezra Mason. Errr, make that ex-boyfriend: the two broke up just before the attack. Along with 6,000 other survivors, and despite their lovesick squabbling, Kady and Ezra make it to the escape shuttles and off Kerenza. Kady winds up aboard the science vessel Hypatia, while Eza lands on the UTA warship Alexander – the only military ship to respond to Kerenza’s distress signal (likely blocked by BeiTech). Also traveling with the fleet is the heavy freighter Copernicus.

Their mission, whether or not they choose to accept it: make it to the Heimdall waypoint some 6.5 to 7 months away, with limited supplies and a damaged warship, before BeiTech’s last remaining dreadnought, the Lincoln, catches up to them and nukes the only remaining witnesses to mass murder. As if this isn’t complicated enough, Kaufman and Kristoff layer on the danger and intrigue with a military conspiracy; a virus variously called Phobos or the Shakes that turns the afflicted into deranged, violent, semi-zombies (think: the Reavers in Serenity); and a duplicitous AI named AIDAN who’s increasingly going off-script – for everyone’s good, natch.

There’s so much to love here, starting with the format. Normally I’m a huge proponent of e-books (three words: space, weight, lighting!), but Illuminae is a book that deserves to be savored in hard copy format. Told through a mix of chat logs, emails, memorandums, video footage, ship schematics, maps, and other hard data, Illuminae is a friggin’ work of art. Seriously, it’s lovely. Crafty books can sometimes feel a little gimmicky, but not so here. Oftentimes the graphics complement the story, driving home certain points or themes (especially in the case of AIDAN’s memories) and further immersing the reader in the story. Plus it’s so darn creative!

(Although, as a side note, the strikethrough on the edited reports is a little heavy. Maybe make it a little thinner next time, design team?)

Originally I requested (and received) an ARC of Illuminae through NetGalley (thank you Random House!), but it wasn’t available for download on my Kindle. I hate reading e-books on my iPad (too reflective!), but I gave it the old college try anyway. (I really, rilly wanted to read this book!) The documents in particular proved difficult to read (the text was quite pixelated), and the ship schematics and Wikipedia entry were downright impossible (too small). That’s when I jumped ship and decided to wait for the book’s release. I ended up buying a hardcover and am so glad I did.

This isn’t to suggest that the finished e-book will definitely have the same issues; I really don’t know. But trust me when I say you should opt for a print copy anyway.

Also awesome are the characters and plot. Kady and Ezra are just adorable together; I can’t remember the last time I rooted so hard for a pair of crazy kids (Lyra and Will excepted). At first I feared that their bickering would get real old, real fast – but the cooling-off period necessitated by their physical separation restarts their relationship in a fresh, welcome way. By the time Kady and Ezra finally reunite – in cyberpace, that is, through email and illicit chats – they’re different people. Whereas Ezra has been conscripted into the military and now flies Cyclones, Kady and her mentor are elbow-deep in AIDAN’s data stream, trying to uncover the truth behind…well, everything: the bombing of the Copernicus, the threat posed by the Lincoln, the nature of the Phobos virus. Ostensibly, the two play for opposing teams: the establishment and the outsiders. Yet both desperately wish to survive – if only for the sake of the other.

AIDAN also makes for a compelling villain/savior; his expanding self-awareness, coupled with his evolving feelings towards Kady, had me at the edge of my seat. I can’t wait to see what he/she/it becomes in book number two.

The plot, as I’ve already said (but cannot stress enough), is riddled with twists and turns and reveals and take-backsies. Unreliable and downright dishonest narrators further complicate matters, while the book’s seemingly objective nature (it’s presented as a report) provide a handy curtain to hide behind. In both plot and tone, Illuminae evokes some of my favorite shows and movies – most obviously Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, but also a certain 1981 flick that I won’t name because spoilers (!), but gave me mad nightmares as a kid.

In summary, I am already doing my got-to-pee dance over and making grabby hands at the sequel. This? This right here is why I usually choose to binge read series, people. COUNTDOWN TO THE LOSS OF MY PATIENCE: 0 HOURS 7 MINUTES.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: So-so. Most of the 6,000 survivors of the Kerenza attack – including the protagonists, Kady and Ezra – suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and survivor’s guilt. In her journal, Kady writes of the mandatory group therapy sessions she attends aboard the Hypatia.

While Kady and Ezra are both white (as far as I can tell) and straight, there’s a little more diversity among the supporting characters. Kady’s mentor Byron Zhang is Chinese, and many of the crew/survivors have names suggestive of non-white ethnicities: Ann Chau (Captain, Hypatia); Colonel Eva Sanchez (Alexander); Zhenya Alvaranga (1st LT, Alexander); Sumiko “Tsurugi” Watanabe (1st LT, Alexander); Sofia Mohammad (Captain from Engineering, Alexander), Xi Wei Lu (Alexander network engineer); James Wu (Security Section Head, Hypatia); Consuela Nestor (a commtech on the Hypatia who, along with Zhang, is forcibly conscripted/kidnapped by the Alexander); and Martina Hernandez (a survivor who gives birth aboard the Hypatia). Many of these characters appear only briefly, or not at all (i.e., as mere mentions on a fatalities report). On the four-page spread memorializing the Copernicus’s dead, many of those pictured are people of color.

Also, it’s implied that Winifred McCall (1st LT, Alexander) and Lia Myles (Executive Officer, Alexander) might have been in a relationship (“Cold as the belly of the void, little Lia Myles. Not sure what I ever saw in her”). McCall has one of the larger supporting roles, as she retires her post in protest of General Torrence’s actions and later leads the survivors of the Alexander to escape on the Hypatia. Corporal Danny Corron, another Alexander crew member who helps to evac his peers, is also gay: he has a husband and daughter on Ares VI.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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