Woohoo, I love collaborative writers (like J.D. Vaughn of The Second Guard)! It’s always fun to try and figure out who wrote what. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff are two Australian nationals who have woven together a spellbinding book about a girl, a boy, a battle, a psychotic AI, a horrifying disease, and space. How exciting!
Honestly, Illuminae has been on my radar for a very long time; I just didn’t bother with it because I read the word “exes Kady and Ezra” in the synopsis, and I was like, “lol no.” I hate it when the author reveals the love interest to you (one of the main plotlines, imo) right in the cover. So I had no interest in the book until it was highly recommended to me by two friends. They convinced me with the format: it’s written in a very avant-garde manner, filled with diagrams, transcriptions of interviews, maps, basically everything except for pages and pages of paragraphs. Not that pages and pages of paragraphs are bad; I mean, that’s 99% of YA literature. That’s what I enjoy. But it’s interesting to see something different once in a while. I thought that perhaps, this sort of varied format would be easier on the brain; I was proven wrong by the twists and turns the story took. There were quite a few times where things got too intense and I had to put it down for a while, which might sound dramatic but I just needed to wrap my head around what was happening.
It’s hard to describe the exact line that the plot takes. Basically, a small, illegal mining planet called “Kerenza,” where our protagonist, Kady, lives, is attacked by a huge corporation known as BeiTech. Kady and Ezra manage to escape the carnage, and there’s a lot of carnage. BeiTech basically hurls missiles at Kerenza until it deteriorates from a block of ice to a bunch of half-melted snow-cone shavings. Many die. The few thousand that escape are rescued by a nearby ship called the Alexander, along with its fleet, including the research vessel Hypatia and another vessel whose role I can’t remember: Copernicus. Alexander, Hypatia and Copernicus beat a hasty retreat, but are closely followed by BeiTech’s dreadnought (a war-ship,) the Lincoln.
Kady and Ezra are split up both physically and emotionally. Kady is on the Hypatia, while Ezra is on Alexander. She had dumped him a day before the attack commences, so things are fairly awkward between the two. Unfortunately, due to the lack of support they have from anyone else on the ship, they have nowhere to turn except to each other. Things become especially tense when it is discovered that the Lincoln is following them and has supposedly destroyed Copernicus, but suspicions are rife that high command on Alexander and Hypatia are hiding something big.
The best way I could think to describe this would be… a literary version of Dead Space. Two people are trapped in space with horrifying things happening around them; it’s not really aliens, though. The virus that infects the refugees and crew members is sort of like whatever it was that Eveline infected the Baker family with in Resident Evil 7. It basically turns kind, normal people into these frothing, psychotic, stabby psychopaths. They run around the ship, gleefully slaughtering everything in their path, screaming “DON’T LOOK AT ME,” at their unfortunate victims. The virus has elements of your typical murder-plague, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.
There’s also the AI, colloquially known as AIDAN. During the battle of Kerenza, AIDAN is responsible for taking down three of the four BeiTech ships. It is heavily damaged from the fight, and trouble begins a while later when it orders Alexander personnel to destroy Copernicus. This is ordered under a (perhaps) misguided attempt to save the majority of the remaining humans from the effects of Phobos (the virus) which, at this point, is still widely unknown among administrators, staff, and refugees aboard the Alexander. Horrified that the AI has forced them to kill their own people, they shut it down. Unfortunate circumstances lead to AIDAN being powered back up, but the computer recognizes that these personnel have the ability to turn it off again; so it does the only “logical” thing and releases quarantined, Phobos-infected escapees from the Copernicus massacre, into the Alexander’s halls. AIDAN is a wild-card, and makes a surprising shift throughout the story. It’s a really, really frightening concept–AI that is solely responsible for their survival, turning against them– that is executed brilliantly. Not only do we see the effects of AIDAN; we see AIDAN’s thought-processes through transcriptions of data retrieved from its core. This allows us to look inside the AI’s head and keeping in mind that AIDAN is a secondary antagonist, allows us to basically better understand the motivations of a singularly-focused villain. And we find that AIDAN isn’t a villain, not really; it is deluded and far too logically-minded to deal with the emotional complexities of our protagonists, but it’s not a villain. The relationship between AIDAN and Kady is one of the most intricately-woven and human relationships I’ve ever witnessed in a story. Kady is forced to depend on a thing that she hates to survive; likewise for AIDAN, to complete his core objective. I have to admire the way the authors laid it out because it’s hard to shape such a relationship without it coming off as unrealistic or flat-out abusive.
Kady is our primary protag, with Ezra following closely behind. They mostly communicate through private messaging, and though I was turned off by the idea that they were exes and would be obsessing over each other for the entire book, I was disproven… sort of. It doesn’t get to obnoxious levels anyways, so no worries.
Kady is a hacker, and the descriptions of her getting into the system make sense. They’re not arbitrary attempts at techno-lingo. I mean, I’m no authority on this because I don’t know the first thing about computers or coding or hacking, but for the unenlightened, it’s believable. She’s got a strong personality, and her actions make sense for her age. She’s in a very stressful situation, so though she makes some bad decisions, they don’t seem out of place.
Ezra is pretty great. He’s a good dose of entertainment amidst horror and grief, and he quickly endears himself to the reader. I thought that the way he was fleshed out was pretty interesting, and I’m glad that though his main role consisted of “love interest,” he had his own ambitions and motivations. It always sucks when the love interest is a flat character. Also, Ezra’s role is intrinsic to the story; he’s actually the one doing most of the physical labor and primary sneaking around for Kady.
The side characters, like James McNulty and Byron Zhang, aren’t forgettable. I found that even though we only knew them for a few chapters, they had charismatic personalities or were so meticulously detailed that they felt as important as our protagonists. I’m glad that no one sold short, if that makes sense? They all had distinctive roles, and even if they weren’t main characters, they were paid attention to. Even Captain Annie Chau, Syra Boll, David Torrence, all of them.
There were enough plot twists in this book to keep me at the edge of the seat, but not becoming a convoluted, twisty, Rainbow-Road type story. That was especially good, because when you have too many twists, you start to anticipate them. I didn’t anticipate any of these, and honestly? They left me kind of breathless. Like the wait– what– what is happening– kind of breathless. AIDAN. Kady. Ezra. They go through a lot of awful stuff.
I don’t want to give too much away; this is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few months / other than Crooked Kingdom / so I’d love it if you checked it out! Illuminae is followed by Gemina and Obsidio, so you don’t even have to worry about not having your hands on the sequels when you finish this one. I hope you give it a chance, because its format is super original and really enticing, and the story (while familiar) is still so dazzling. Illuminae is an immersive tale that takes place in the empty blackness of space, where monsters hide in every corner, and there’s nowhere to run because you’re stuck on a floating tin can. See if you can brave its depths and give it a try! 😉