I picked up the New York Times and international bestseller Illuminae (The first installment of The Illuminae Files) after a long dry spell. After giving up on yet another novel, less than a quarter of the way in, I was starting to wonder whether I even liked reading as much as I thought I did.
Illuminae restored my faith in reading. I know that sounds dramatic, but just listen.
The story unfolds within a selection of files – hence the title – a combination of emails, reports, and interviews. It begins with our main character Kady. She has broken up with her high-school boyfriend Azra and her home planet Karenza has been attacked. The illegally mined Karenza had been attacked by a competing mining company.
Kady and Azra are picked up by a benevolent research spacecraft and manage to escape as refugee passengers. The rest of the book centres around the scientists and refugees aboard the Copernicus and later their military aircraft escort, the Alexander, as they deal with the following challenges:
Being stuck in deep space with a broken space jump thing
Being chased by the Lincoln, a spaceship owned by the aforementioned company that attacked Kerenza in the first place
Lack of water
A damaged artificial intelligence unit called AIDEN (one of my favourite characters) who slowly loses his mind
The fact that the passengers are dropping off like flies because of a disease that nobody will talk about
Needless to say, the plot is both distressing and delicious. I couldn’t get through it fast enough. As I was reading, I constantly pissed off my husband by (let’s run with the bullet points):
Occasionally saying fuck emphatically after a particularly tense moment
Keeping my reading light on till the wee hours of the morning
Being reluctant to engage in any activity not involving reading Illuminae
Admittedly, I found the layout difficult at first. There’s no single narrative voice to draw all of the strings together and a lot of the reports use technical language that I usually find off-putting. But by the time I was twenty pages in, the advantages of this story telling method were abundantly clear. The reports keep the story action focussed and reading the emails and interviews gives you that guilty-greedy feeling of reading someone else’s diary. It’s like a reading a book made entirely of dialogue, and let’s face it, the dialogue is the only part we read carefully anyway.
Authors Amie Kaufman (These Broken Stars) and Jay Kristoff (The Lotus War) do a wonderful job of creating authentic character voice. It’s a pleasure to experience the space drama from the perspective of Kady and Azra. Some of the language the characters use is a bit corny (I will stab the next person who calls somebody “chum”), but for me, that made it more believable – I’m an English teacher and I can verify that teenagers really do write that way.
Anyway, the best part of the book is Kady. I thought she was excellent. She strikes the balance between heroism and relatability perfectly.While she’s strong, she’s not invincible. When bad things happen to her, she gets upset. At the beginning of the story we see her deal with her grief over the horrors she has witnessed on Kerenza in an appropriately emotionally stunted way. She’s a little bit screwed up, but even still, as things get increasingly desperate, Kady rallies. She hacks, fights, and talks her way out of danger like the badass nerd heroine she is.
I didn’t realise it immediately, but upon reflection I think this is the reason why Illuminae was more than just a good read for me. It told me something I needed to hear. We’re not invincible. We’re not perfect. We can be a total emotional mess but we still get to choose how we live. Winning at life is not about having our shit together. It’s about doing what we can despite our circumstance.
Kady never discovers hidden powers that make all of her problems disappear, and she isn’t ever rescued by a knight in shining armor. She just keeps doing what she’s been good at all along and hopes that will be enough.
Illuminae is a truly gripping story in an interesting format. I wouldn’t have picked that I would have been as absorbed as I was – but – I was. Now quick, read it before it gets made into a movie. It’s already in development with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment. You won’t regret it.