Review: ILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Page Count: 602
Release Date: October 15th, 2015
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It!


When Kady broke up with Ezra, she didn’t expect it to be the exact same day as an attack that decimated her mining colony. The few thousand survivors who made it off world have taken refuge in two science vessels and a military cruiser that answered their distress call. Now they’re fleeing for the nearest gate, with a powerful enemy vessel in hot pursuit, determined to eradicate all survivors and evidence of the attack. In the weeks of the journey that follow, a devastating tragedy rocks the fleet, and Kady starts to get the sense that high command is keeping a secret from the general populace. Although a skilled hacker, there’s only so much intel she can glean from the computer servers. Determined to uncover what’s really going on, Kady reaches out to Ezra, who ended up on the military vessel Alexander. Together, the two delve into what’s going on with the Alexander’s AI, and what truth there is about a new plague that is spreading on the other ships.

ILLUMINAE is a harrowing, tense read that uses its unusual structure to great effect. The framework for the story is that the book is a collection of documents recounting the events of the disaster that struck the Alexander and the other ships in the fleet; as such, the story is largely told through chat transcripts, emails, personnel files, and other such writings. Those alone are a wealth of imperfect knowledge, as the reader can only see what’s been put to page by various individuals. But even then, there are clues as to how things are being framed, as the reader can see parts that high command has stricken out, revealing what details they are trying to keep secret.

But interspersed in the more official documentation are pages of something better described as word art poetry. A page might contain lines written in flowing curves to capture the sense of a fighter plane zipping about space, or a bunch of words crammed together to convey the overwhelming chaos of a battle. Some of these pages work better than others, but when they do, it can be goosebump-inducing. (Note: I was warned ahead of time not to get this book on an ereader because of these pages, so highly recommend getting a physical copy for full enjoyment!)

As for the story itself, it is much darker than I expected for a YA novel, with some graphic depictions of violence. If you’re at all squeamish, I’d take a pass on this or be prepared to skip a few pages. Suffice to say that some passengers begin to go insane over the course of the book, with horrifying consequences. Once you get to the meat of the story, it is a taught space thriller with a liberal dose of horror. The structure of the book lends itself to the thrills, as chat transcripts reveals a character who is trapped in a room knowing the end is near, while computer command codes coldly and dispassionately record what happened to another.

The one downside to this book is that it took a while to get going. I fully admit, I was very “meh” for the first third of it while the characters are being established and love-sick Ezra sends messages to a very disinterested Kady. (Prepare for some eye-rolling declarations of undying love by seventeen-year-olds.) There was plenty of cringy locker-room dialogue between teenage boys that I also could have done without. There’s just enough mystery and slowly rising tension, however, to keep things interesting, as hints begin to leak through that all is not right in the fleet.

ILLUMINAE is an absolutely terrific and terrifying sci-fi adventure, perfect for those looking for a darker tale. Although it has a rough start, it absolutely nails the rest of the story. It has all the vibes of claustrophobia that come with being trapped on a ship in space, with no escape and the monsters closing in. ILLUMINAE is the first of a trilogy and I am already chomping at the bit to see what new horrors await in the following books.

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