Review: ILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
The word “experience” is often used when referring to a creative work of any kind, and I believe it would be the best term to define this amazing, unexpected book. Unexpected because I would never have thought that the epistolary form or the found-footage narrative would work so well with a science fiction story; unexpected because the different sub-genres at work here (sci-fi, thriller, horror and a bit of romance) blended so seamlessly into a cohesive and enthralling whole; and unexpected because my previous encounters with YA themes have mostly led to disappointment, while here I saw how skillful writing and respect both for characters and their audience can breathe life into teenaged protagonists that are not only believable, but that make you care and root for them. More than once I found myself thinking that Illuminae should be used as a manual about creating YA characters that are neither cliché nor annoying or predictable.
But let’s proceed with order…
The time is five hundred (and something) years from now: humanity has expanded across space and on the isolated mining colony situated on frozen Kerenza, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason just broke up after a big fight. Events soon put their lovers’ spat in a corner when ships from BeiTech Corporation attack Kerenza – independent and therefore considered illegal – with a brutality that hints at the will to teach a bloody example. The survivors of the attack are rescued by three ships: the freighter Copernicus, the science vessel Hypatia and a Terran battlecruiser, the Alexander: the meagre convoy sets out to take the refugees to safety, despite the heavy damage sustained by Alexander, that remains their only line of defense against pursuing BeiTech ships. Kady ends on Hypatia and Ezra on Alexander, both of them conscripted – despite their young age – to help in the effort against the attackers.
Through the collection of files, memos, transcripts of communications, interviews and personal IM conversations we learn that the plight of the Kerenza survivors keeps getting worse: the Alexander‘s powerful IA, named AIDAN, has been damaged in the battle against BeiTech’s dreadnought Lincoln, to the point that its logic cannot be trusted anymore; before the evacuation, the attackers used bio-weapons on the colonists, and all of the affected people were taken aboard by the Copernicus, where the symptoms manifested first as tremors and then as loss of reasoning and the transformation of the victims into homicidal maniacs. When Copernicus is destroyed, officially by Lincoln, and AIDAN is taken offline shortly thereafter, speculations start to fly wildly about…
This is the premise (although calling this massively engrossing beginning ‘premise’ seems somewhat reductive…) from which the whole story takes flight, a story rich with dramatic twists and turns, unexpected revelations and a constant escalation in tension that makes for compulsive reading. There’s also the format to take into consideration: the transcripts and assorted documents are integrated with schematics, computer screen printouts and a few pages where the narrative is carried forward through a blending of words and images – I can’t describe it in a better way, it must be seen, and enjoyed directly. Which requires a few words about the differences between physical books and the e-book format: I read Illuminae in the latter, and I understand that the paper book would have enhanced my experience, because at times the printed characters were so small and arranged in such a way as to be quite difficult to read on a small screen. When I moved the book from my usual reader to a tablet, the situation improved quite a bit thanks to its better magnification properties, and I was able to see details that were denied to me on my default e-reader – so that might be a good solution to the problem for those who prefer the virtual medium.
Nonetheless, much as I admired the authors’ choice in formatting, the “meat” of the book is in the story itself, and the characters, and they come through no matter what format you get to know them in. The authors have done an astounding work in building and growing amazing personalities through the use of transcripts and conversations: these might look like very poor means to create three-dimensional characters, and yet the writers were able to do exactly that, and to present us with unforgettable people, even with secondary figures. The general effect they reached was to make you hear these people’s voices as if they were speaking directly to you: you listen to their emotions, you see them for who and what they are, and in the end you discover how much you care for them, and the harrowing journey they are on.
We get to know Kady and Ezra through the IM exchanges not in spite of what they avoid saying, but because of it: what remains between the lines, and sometimes comes out in the most unexpected way, is so powerfully built that it shines through. They are not the kind of teenagers that so much stereotyped YA literature has taught me to expect and dread, they are real teenagers and realistically complex creatures who are dealing with something so much bigger than they are, and yet they manage to face it – through trial and error, through pain, sacrifice and loss – with no hint of the useless whining and fake angst so many of their counterparts are invested with in lesser works. Their emotions are so authentic that it’s impossible not to suffer with them as they see what remains of their world crumbling piece by piece; just as it it’s impossible not to cheer for them as they try to accomplish the impossible. In this respect, the section where Kady moves through Alexander, in a situation that makes The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later look like a picnic, is an amazing spotlight for her character and for the personality of AIDAN, a grievously damaged AI whose actions made me run the whole emotional spectrum from loathing to compassion.
Because emotions, powerful emotions, are possibly the main reason for the success of this book: the impending sense of dread, the realization that something is wrong and it’s going to become even worse, made me afraid for the characters and compelled me to keep going forward to know what happened, while at the same time I was terrified to – not unlike what happens to the protagonist as they walk the ships’ corridors infested by the affected victims. The authors of this amazing book managed to convey all those feelings through writing that is both epic and lyrical, and even if I closed the book in a state of emotional exhaustion, I know that I would happily welcome more of this story, and drink it all up with the same kind of eagerness.
Very highly recommended.