REVIEW: ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINEA FILES 01)
When I read STORMDANCER (THE LOTUS WAR BOOK 1) I was blown away by Jay Kristoff's aching melodrama and vibrantly stylized prose. While I still need to read the rest of that trilogy, I was also very intrigued by a more recent book with his name attached to it. ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINAE FILES #1) is a collaboration between Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. At a superficial level, it's a space opera starring two teenagers and a psychotic artificial intelligence. There are also shades of a Z virus, corporate corruption, and Battlestar Galactica style space combat thrown in for good measure. But what separates this seemingly typical piece of science fiction literature is HOW the story is told (more on that in just a bit). Basically, I'd been interested in this book since it came out, but finally had an excuse to pick it up when the BookTube SFF Awards group placed it on their 2016 shortlist. When it came time for them to do the readalong for this one, I gladly joined in and was very happy that I did.
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 I think this one will be kind of a hit or a miss for most (obviously it was a hit for me). There is some really brilliant stuff here, but there are also some rather trope-y elements that will drive some folks up a wall. If you can look past the most generic YA elements of the work, then you'll see a compelling narrative that's graced with lush visual embellishments.
Like I mentioned before, there are really only three characters of much note. There's Kady Grant, a computer whizz who sports pink hair and has some issues with interpersonal communication. Her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Mason is a bit more outgoing and a little less anti-establishment. They're an interesting pair since readers actually meet them right after they've broken up. The day it all fell apart for them also happens to be the day that their world is assaulted by a shady corporate superpower's fleet. They're rescued though and ushered off-world where they find themselves stuck on different space vessels. At first, this is a blessing for them, but as they gradually start to make up over inter-ship instant messaging, the separation becomes a curse. For the most part, their interactions felt authentic, if a bit too typical of a YA relationship. Still, it felt real because there was genuine hurt felt on both sides in spite of a young puppy-love that burns hot throughout. That said, their immaturity does show through at odd times and in weird ways. Moments where that happens are definitely a little jarring because what was cute in one situation feels very out of place in a different one and the authors seem to struggle with working the characters' lighthearted youthfulness into the dire events that happen around them. The same can be said about the myriad of minor characters that show up in the various "files" that tell the story. Most of them are adults, but there are times where they sound as ridiculous as the teens. While it's good to have a tonal consistency, I'll admit that their lines felt a little off sometimes.
Then there's AIDAN, one of the ship's artificial intelligence system. It gets damaged during the initial battle and begins to go off the rails as it tries to repair itself. AIDAN is a bit of a late bloomer since we don't see much of him in the first half of the story. There is a pretty shocking event that happens which results in his getting shut down. There's a lot of chatter about him, but very little of his character is actually defined until the crew is forced to turn him back on. When this happens, the flow of the story takes some dramatic turns and readers are treated to one of the finest characters that synthetic intelligence has to offer. A good number of the "files" that appear from this point on actually belong to him. They show readers his though logs and invite them into his twisted logic system. For a YA book, things get pretty darn dark once this thing comes alive. He really cleans house and initiates a spiral of death unlike pretty much anything else I've ever read. The writers really killed it with this character so far as I'm concerned and he's probably the most interesting member of the cast by far.
For the most part, there isn't really much of a "world" here. The only one we ever get to see is a small mining planet which is thoroughly under siege before the "files" are ever generated. Much of what readers come to know about it is based on recorded interviews with Kady and Ezra as they detail their actions during the course of that catastrophe. Beyond that, the world so far as this story is concerned is comprised of the confining vastness of space and three starships which house the refugees from Kady and Ezra's home planet. It's kind of cool that each of the ships has a very different feel to it. One is a small science/medical vessel, one is more of a lightweight civilian shuttle, and the other is a military-grade destroyer. Sadly, only the latter two get much in the way of description, but some of the files do cover what the third is like. They make for interesting locations to since they are more an extension of the characters' plight than anything else.Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a lot of love that went into fully realizing each one, it's just that the characters take center stage here for the most part. Only a certain number of the "files" make mention of what the interior of these shuttles look like and I mostly had to rely on the diagrams of them to envision what they look like on the outside. They do make for an excellent stage for the action though, especially since there's a sense of vulnerability about being stuck on them that this book loves to play up, thus increasing the tension of already tense scenarios.
By now, I've made reference to a number of different aspects of this book's plot. One key piece of this is the way the book uses "files" to weave the narrative. There are different types of them mixed up throughout the course of the novel from video analysis to personal IMs, official messages to transcripts of recordings, and as I mentioned before, AIDAN's thought logs. The variety of these files makes it so that nothing ever really felt stale.They were similar enough to feel cohesive, but also offered some nice changes in perspective. My favorite type is certainly those that are pulled from the AIDAN core, but all of them are pretty good. It's an interesting way to go about telling a story overall and it gives off a certain feel that I don't think you'll find anywhere else. The sheer sense of speed and intensity I got while reading this is definitely something I've never experience when reading any other novel.
I've stated before that this DOES have some more juvenile overtones and I think if there is one area where the book will fall flat, it is in this younger tone. Some may also have criticisms about the characters, but ultimately I think a lot of those issues are going to tie back into the immaturity that is prevalent in the contents of the files. From my perspective, everything just came off as larger than life and I enjoyed the dorky teenage bits. I think without them, this actually might have been too adult for my tastes since, like I've mentioned, this is an insanely dark, violent and sometimes graphic piece of science fiction. It's so dark that I often forgot that this is technically YA. I know I read a lot of messed up stuff when I was in this age group (mostly thanks to the "classics"), but to me, this genre is supposed to come with a certain level of innocence that I find is rarely ever the case - maybe this is just a sign that I'm getting old...
Worth a section unto it's own, the visuals in this book are just stunning. The prose is filled with explosively colorful descriptions and unforgettable imagery. But more than that is literally the way the pages look. Each type of file is formatted differently and employs graphic effects to compliment its content. Sometimes this is done through incorporating simple black and white images, but most of the time it's achieved through all sorts of typographical effects and subtleties. There is also some incredible word art to be found at different points. Then there's just plan old art, mostly in the form of diagrams of the space ships. I have the hard cover edition of this book and even the cover is constructed with a mind-boggling level of creativity and careful design. There's just a TON of effort that went into how this book looks and it's this visual component that made reading it an indulgence that I am not to forget anytime soon.
This is one of those books that readers are just going to have to try for themselves. It's definitely got it's quirks, so I can't promise that you'll love it. All I can say really is that I loved it. The things most people take issue with didn't phase me too much and it's just so easy to praise this book for all of the things that it gets right. This book was an absolute treat to read through and I think most of the "haters" are missing out appreciating its unique offerings. It's definitely not the most believable, plausible, original, or grown up piece of science fiction to ever be put into print, but it IS the type of book that is totally unlike other books. It's the type of book that can blow readers away if they approach it with an open mind and can appreciate a book as a piece of art.
ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINAE FILES #1) is available in just about every format known to readers on Amazon, though I strongly suggest you get this in either a Hardcover or Paperback edition since I don't think you'll get the full experience with any other format.