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When I delved into “STORMDANCER” (the first installment of “THE LOTUS WAR” series), I was absolutely captivated by Jay Kristoff’s poignant melodrama and his vividly stylized prose. Although I have yet to explore the subsequent books in the trilogy, my curiosity was also piqued by a more recent work bearing his name. “ILLUMINEA” (the inaugural entry in “THE ILLUMINAE FILES” series) is a collaborative effort between Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. On the surface, it presents itself as a space opera featuring two teenagers and a malevolent artificial intelligence. Within its narrative, one can discern elements of a Z virus, corporate corruption, and space combat reminiscent of the intensity found in “Battlestar Galactica.” However, what truly sets this ostensibly conventional piece of science fiction apart is the manner in which the story unfolds (I’ll elaborate on this shortly).
Essentially, my interest in this book had persisted since its initial release, but it wasn’t until the BookTube SFF Awards group included it in their 2016 shortlist that I found a compelling reason to pick it up. When the time came for their readalong of this particular title, I eagerly participated, and I can confidently say that I was immensely pleased with my decision.
Illuminae audiobook Series Shifters Unbound
“Illuminae” has long been on my reading radar, recommended by several trustworthy bloggers. It had a firm place on my bookshelf, yet I hesitated to dive into it. You see, science fiction isn’t my go-to genre, and when combined with the fact that it’s geared toward a younger audience (YA), along with the possibility of a heavy focus on romance, I needed a gentle nudge. Thankfully, SciFi Month 2016 provided just that.
Now, onto the story itself. I’ll be careful not to reveal too much in this review because “Illuminae” is brimming with twists and turns, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises for future readers. Jay Kristoff provided an excellent synopsis on Goodreads, which essentially boils down the story to this: a girl meets a boy, loses the boy, loses her planet and family, and ends up on a damaged spaceship with a faster one hot on their heels. Adding to the mix is a zombie-style outbreak on one of the ships and an AI computer gone completely haywire.
Audiobook Illuminae by Cris Dukehart
“Illuminae” is a brutal, heart-wrenching, intense, shocking, and utterly gripping masterpiece. It kept me enthralled from the very beginning and stands as one of my most enjoyable reads this year. While I’m not typically a devoted fan of science fiction, I’ve found immense delight in Amie Kaufman’s other series (particularly her collaboration with Meagan Spooner in the Starbound Series) and was equally enamored with Jay Kristoff’s “Stormdancer” (though I’m yet to complete that series). So, when news of their collaboration surfaced, my curiosity was more than piqued.
What truly distinguishes “Illuminae” from the vast realm of science fiction is its unique epistolary format. The story unfolds through journal entries, surveillance footage analysis, official reports, ship logs, and other such documents. This unconventional narrative structure made the reading experience all the more intriguing. It not only allowed me to delve into the lives of characters beyond the central protagonist but also provided a refreshingly different perspective on storytelling. Admittedly, it’s not a breakneck, fast-paced tale, and it bombards the reader with a wealth of data and information that may take some adjustment. Yet, once you acclimate to this style, it ensnares you completely.
Audio Illuminae narrated by Cris Dukehart
First and foremost, I must gush about the dust jacket; it’s utterly fantastic! The myriad shades of red and the material (which has a somewhat plastic-like feel) immediately won me over. But the real surprise lay beneath: the actual cover featured text from the hacked documents that compose the novel, complete with corrections. It’s hands down one of the most captivating book covers I’ve ever encountered.
Now, onto the second layer. Upon skimming through the book, I caught a glimpse of its contents. The black pages initially puzzled me, but I noticed drawings and a generous serving of what’s known as ASCII art. Honestly, I had never come across that concept before.
And now, the third layer—the actual reading experience. Did this assortment of documents work for me? Without a doubt, yes. I relished the diverse reports, emails, transcripts, and chat conversations. Although, if I must be honest, the chat component was the one I enjoyed the least. This was more due to my own limitations; I’m not well-versed in chat English and its abbreviations, which sometimes made it a challenge to read. Plus, as a stickler for good grammar, the chat transcripts didn’t exactly showcase pristine English.
One aspect that left me utterly bewildered was the censored swearing. Personally, I don’t use profanity, and I’m not fond of it in the presence of others; it simply doesn’t sound refined. Additionally, I tend to disfavor books where profanity feels gratuitous, especially in my native language. I’m of the belief that excessive swearing correlates with a limited vocabulary. In this book, there’s an abundance of swearing, but it’s cleverly concealed behind black strips. I’m still undecided about whether it worked or came across as somewhat silly, absurd, or even hypocritical. I found myself spending precious seconds trying to imagine what profanity was concealed beneath the black strips. However, considering the sheer number of these blacked-out words, I’d venture to say they were the lesser of two evils.
I actually appreciated the fact that there weren’t an excess of descriptions. We don’t glean much about Kady, the main protagonist, aside from her distinctive pink hair. Similarly, my memory of Ezra doesn’t contain a wealth of details. However, this could be attributed to my limited interest in descriptions.
My favorite character among the cast would have to be McNulty. The snippet of recording about him was truly heart-wrenching, nearly bringing tears to my eyes—though I refrained, given the company around me. Winifred McCall was another intriguing character.
While I did like the main character, these two resonated with me on a deeper level due to their experiences. Kady was exceptional; I have a penchant for strong female characters who aren’t merely whiny and shallow. On the contrary, I haven’t formed a clear impression of Ezra.
And now, the story itself. It took some time to become fully engrossed. Initially, it was a tad frustrating as I struggled to grasp what was transpiring, with information coming in bits and pieces that were a challenge to connect. However, once the plot gained momentum, it became an absolute pleasure to read. I devoured it in less than two days, despite not being a fan of lengthy tomes.
I absolutely adored the ASCII rose. Deep down, perhaps I secretly yearn for romantic gestures like that, even if I pretend otherwise. The ASCII Scream was another highlight, and the extensive list of casualties with accompanying images was a brilliant addition that lent authenticity to the narrative.
Moreover, I appreciated the references to other authors woven into the story. I spotted Leigh Bardugo in the aforementioned casualty list, a Laini Taylor as Subject 72 in a medical report from the Copernicus, and Beth Revis and Marie Lu serving as co-producers of the Super Turbo movie. There may be more references lurking within the text, but my attention wasn’t wholly focused on them.
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“Illuminae” recounts the events that unfolded at Kerenza and the subsequent developments aboard the Alexander. On an ordinary day, Kady found herself behind the wheel of her mother’s truck, a seemingly routine occurrence, until their mining colony was suddenly besieged. It was only due to the truck that she and Ezra managed to escape with their lives. Amidst the chaos of the attack and the destruction of their home, the people of Kerenza were rescued by the Alexander, a formidable dreadnought, along with the Hypatia and the Copernicus, a research vessel. Despite ending up on different ships after their evacuation, Ezra and Kady were able to maintain communication through messages. Unfortunately, their flight from the pursuing Lincoln was hampered by the damage inflicted upon the Alexander during the confrontation with four hostile ships.
Over the course of the next six months, the three vessels raced towards the Heimdall waypoint, hoping to outpace the relentless pursuit of the Lincoln. Yet, before they could reach their destination, a catastrophic event occurred. Aiden, the Artificial Intelligence system of the Alexander, inexplicably fired upon the Copernicus, prompting the captain to question its motives and ultimately disable it. With their lives hanging in the balance, the crew struggled to restart the system without Aiden’s control, but time might be running out. As Kady remained aboard the Hypatia, she unwittingly drew Aiden’s attention from that ship, setting in motion a sequence of events that would alter everything.
I found myself deeply drawn to Kady and Ezra, who grapple with their own challenges while navigating the tumultuous waters of high school life, a world suddenly upended by unforeseen circumstances. Their unwavering bond, despite the physical distance and perilous situations, is a testament to their resilience. Aiden, the enigmatic Artificial Intelligence, fascinated me as well; it possessed a depth of humanity that transcended its mere AI status, at times expressing the desire for something as human as holding Kady’s hand. Kady’s journal entries and accounts allowed me to intimately experience her emotions and experiences, forging a powerful connection despite the unconventional narrative format.
Upon beginning “Illuminae,” I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as I hadn’t thoroughly read the synopsis prior to purchasing the book. It came as a delightful surprise to discover that the story is conveyed through documents, emails, interviews, instant messages, and various other file formats. The narrative flowed remarkably well in this unique style, drawing me so deeply into the story that I hardly noticed the unconventional format. Every moment of the book enthralled me, immersing me in Kady’s emotional turmoil, and I confess it moved me to both tears of sadness and joy.
“Illuminae” is a beautifully executed work, a captivating novel that stirs the heart and sparks the imagination. Initially, I had feared it might resemble “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it rapidly evolved into an intricate and multifaceted narrative, far surpassing my expectations. I treasured every instant of it, and it unquestionably secured a place in my top five reads of 2015. Despite having just completed this book, I am already eager for the next installment. The thirst for more is undeniable.
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