Series Review: The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Spoiler-Free)

Caught in the middle of a conflict between two corporate giants, the residents of the illegal mining colony of Kerenza IV find themselves forced to flee through deep space, pursued by people who will kill to keep their crimes a secret. Potentially more dangerous, however, is the quickly-spreading virus aboard the colonists’ already-damaged ship – and the ship’s A.I., which will do anything within its power to save them.

The Illuminae Files is comprised of three books: IlluminaeGemina and Obsidio. The summary above only describes the first book, but the plot of the later two goes on to describe the continuing struggle between the the aforementioned corporate giants (the Wallace Ulyanov Consortium – or WUC – and BeiTech Industries), and the roles of two more pairs of protagonists in it. Each book’s plot is relatively separate, but they are blended together perfectly to create an overarching storyline that is incredibly powerful, and feels truly epic in scale.

The most immediately noticeable thing about these books is their formatting: The entire series is told in the form of data-logs, emails, IM chats, and beautiful word art, along with descriptions of security footage, which are the most conventional parts of the series to read, but from an obvious outsider perspective. Hanna, one of the main characters in Gemina, has a talent for drawing, so in the last two books we also see a lot of extracts from her sketchbooks. (These illustrations are – in the non-fictional world – by Marie Lu, who did a fantastic job.) This was one of a couple of reasons why I didn’t start Illuminae with high hopes; these all seemed to me to be barriers that I would have to overcome in order to really get to know the characters, and as someone who is primarily drawn to character-driven stories, that preconception was a massive turn-off.

Thankfully, however, it was also a massive misconception. True, we didn’t see directly into their heads all that often, but the challenge of portraying fully-fleshed-out characters mainly through conversation and body language was one that the authors rose to, to great effect. I laughed, I cried, I raged and I yearned as I read these books. Additionally, I found that this formatting lent itself really well towards fast paced action, and did a particularly great job of portraying the confusion and chaos of warfare. There’s a couple of pages near the end of Obsidio that are entirely made up of jumbled-up radio transmissions of people trying to figure out what’s happening in a battle, and it doesn’t tell a story in any traditional sense, but it does make its point very vividly; that everything is happening all at once, and everyone involved is confused and frightened, despite their determination. Granted, if the whole book had been like those to pages, it would’ve been unreadable, but Kaufman and Kristoff managed to strike a very nice balance between styles, so that each one had its own powerful impact.

Of the three pairs of protagonists, I found myself more attached to Kady and Ezra than either Hanna and Nik or Asha and Rhys, but because – as the lead characters in the first book – I spent much more time with them over the course of the series than with the others, rather than because they were any better written. Correspondingly, I was much less invested in Asha and Rhys, who were only introduced in Obsidio, where they were already sharing screen-time with the other four – but they were all excellent, compelling characters. As was AIDEN, their A.I. kind-of-ally, whose presence was felt in almost every twist and turn of the plot (and who I loved).

Each pair also had their own romantic sub-plot, which both sweet and very believable, and (unusually for YA, at least in my experience) all of these were either built on pre-existing relationships, or at least pre-existing feelings. This could have made us as readers feel disconnected from the romances, but I found that the characters’ feelings still grew and changed enough that that wasn’t the case, and I also appreciated the fact that less time spent building the relationships from scratch meant that more time could be spent on developing the main story.

This whole series was incredibly emotionally draining, in the best possible way, and Illuminae and Obsidio were particularly intense (there were a few places in both of them that brought me close to tears). Gemina was probably the weakest of the three, as it felt a little less connected to the series’ overarching storyline (its plot was kind of a “meanwhile, these other peripherally-connected things were going on nearby”), but that’s really not saying much, as the other two were so incredible; all three books were definite five-star reads for me, and Illuminae was my favourite of them.

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Review: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (Spoiler-Free)

Even after their breakup, Griffin was determined that Theo would be his endgame; they couldn’t be together just, but they’d both acknowledged that they really wanted to be. Now, all the hopes he had for the future are moot, as Theo is dead, leaving Griffin with only one person who fully understands his grief: Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend from university.

I really, really wanted to love this book, but although I did end up enjoying it, I also found that it was something of a let-down. Griffin was a very difficult protagonist to like, especially in the early stages of the book, as every time he spoke to anyone about Theo, his internal monologue seemed to turn into a grief-off of sorts, as if he felt like the validity of his own grief was actively threatened by anyone else having similar feelings. He pushes away Theo’s best friend Wade (though there are reasons for this that eventually become evident), and viciously derides Jackson, even though he barely knows him. And his feelings towards Jackson are not unrealistic, but when Jackson is the only one of the two boys who seems to be making an effort to be civil (and is also far more likeable than Griffin), it’s hard to hear him being so unfairly attacked.

And Theo is another character who it’s very difficult to care about. We’re mainly exposed to him through snapshots of his relationship with Griffin, which take up every other chapter of the book (appropriately titled “History”), but everything we learn about him is from either Griffin or Jackson, both of whom clearly have their rose-tinted glassed on at all times, so he never really comes across as real. Near the end, we finally see a few of Theo’s flaws, but this actually made me like him less… the real Theo was kind of a jerk.

Given all this, it might not surprise you that halfway through the book, I was almost ready to give up on it, but I’m glad I didn’t, as it actually got a lot better as it went on. True, I liked Theo less and less, but I appreciated the added dimensions to his character. Griffin also improved as he got to know Jackson, and I felt that the relationship that grew out of their shared grief was the real heart of the novel. The History chapters that occurred after Theo and Griffin’s breakup went in an unexpected direction, too, which I enjoyed – and the truth about Griffin’s avoidance of Wade was, for me, what finally pushed this book from a “meh” to a “good” in terms of rating (Wade was the best character in the book, and I just wish he’d been in more of it).

I also liked Silvera’s portrayal of Griffin’s OCD (though I am not qualified to comment on its accuracy); I’ve read a couple of books recently with characters with OCD, and it always seems to be treated as just some endearing character quirk – and although History Is All You Left Me does do the same to an extent, it also called itself out for it, which I appreciated.

Final verdict: I didn’t dislike the book, but found it difficult to connect with, at least until near the end, and my disappointment was no doubt enhanced by my expectation that it would be fantastic (I definitely let myself fall victim to the hype this time). I’m beginning to think that YA contemporaries are just not for me any more, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.

#BookTubeAThon2018: Update 4 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Bright We Burn by Kiersten White.

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware.]

Lada has reclaimed her throne, but holding onto it will be another challenge entirely, and one she’s not nearly so suited for. Radu, meanwhile, returns to Mehmed’s side after the siege of Constantinople, haunted by his experiences there – only to find himself once again caught in-between his sister and his beloved friend.

An excellent conclusion to an excellent trilogy! Lada and Radu are such great characters, and their differing world-views balance out the story perfectly. I’m not usually a fan of very dark stories (and it’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I like Radu more than Lada), but White does a great job of showing how her actions affect people differently; a scene that is horrifying to Radu and his Ottoman companions in one chapter, is a glorious show of defiance to Lada’s Wallachian fighters in the next…

Lada is also a very sympathetic character. While I’m sure that nobody really agrees with her actions, it’s still very easy to understand where they come from: Pure rage at a world that refuses to take her seriously, whatever she seems to do (and a fair amount of bloodthirstiness, too). Lada is the phrase “great and terrible” given form, but she still manages to be human at the same time.

Radu’s chapters provided a much needed respite from his sister’s anger, though he is not without his own conflicts; they are mainly political, where Lada’s are military, but they are no less thrilling for being less action-driven. His internal struggles – of which there are many – are also incredibly heart-wrenching, from his attempts to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, to his complex feelings about both Lada (now his enemy) and Mehmed (who he may finally be accepting can never be more than his friend)…

Beyond its primary characters, the plot escalated and concluded in a very satisfying way, and the story as a whole remained as fast-paced and surprising as its predecessors (i.e. a lot). Unusually for me, I don’t think I have a favourite book in the series, as they were all truly fantastic.

CURRENT BOOKTUBEATHON STATUS: Finished, and dead tired. 😪 I didn’t manage to get too much reading done yesterday, as I spent most of the day on a bus (and even thinking about reading on the bus makes me a little queasy), failing to sleep. But I did manage to finish off an audiobook while I was packing (An Ember in the Ashes, which I started before the readathon, hence the “.5” in my book count… though I shan’t be reviewing it, as I already did so for Booktubeathon 2016), and start on another: The Secret Life of Bees.

Books Completed: 4.5
Pages Read: 1402
(+ Hours Listened: 8:34)
Challenges Completed: 6/7

#BookTubeAThon2018: Update 3 & Review

JUST FINISHED: White Fang by Jack London.

White Fang tells the story of a wild wolf-dog, who is taken in by three human masters in turn, each of them with very different motivations. He is first a sled-dog, and then a fighter, then a sled-dog again, before finally getting a chance at an easier life, with a master who loves him.

This is an excellent story, as gut-wrenching as it is heart-warming, but it has a very slow start. It’s divided into five parts – the first following a two men being pursued across the snowy wastes by a hungry wolf pack; the second showing us White Fang’s puppyhood; and then a section with each of the wolf’s three owners (Grey Beaver, then Beauty Smith, and finally Weedon Scott) – the first of which is vaguely interesting, but entirely superfluous, and the second of which is even duller, but at least does the service of introducing the main character.

It gets better as it goes on, however, and the second half of the book is incredibly engaging. The heart of the story is in White Fang’s relationships with his three owners, and how he is shaped by each of them, whether through affection or through violence (of which there is a great deal). The very end of the book felt somewhat tacked-on, with a sudden flurry of action just as everything seemed to be winding down, and this part of the book could probably have been removed without really effecting the story at all – but the episode was only a few pages long, and the ending was otherwise appropriately sentimental.

Unsure of how closely they were connected, I made sure to read The Call of the Wild in preparation for this book, and although I would recommend reading them as a pair, it is certainly not necessary. The two books are thematically similar, and make a great accompaniment to one another (White Fang following a wild wolf who finds himself keeping company with humans, while The Call of the Wild is about a domestic dog who is, well, called to the wild), so it is clear why they are so often published in one volume, but there is no direct connection between them.

The film:
The adaptation I chose to watch (due to its easy availability more than anything else) was the Netflix animated film that was released earlier this year. I really liked the art style of this film, and appreciated that the filmmakers chose to leave out part one of the novel in its entirety, but felt that on the whole it was over-sanitised in a way that robbed the story of most of its emotional impact. The strength of White Fang is in the contrast between White Fang’s awful treatment at the hands of Beauty Smith (and, to a lesser extent, Gray Beaver) and his rehabilitation (so to speak) with Weedon Scott, and reducing the severity of the former also reduces the appreciation for the latter. I can see why this was done, as the gratuitous violence of the original story isn’t really appropriate for a children’s film, but it’s to the film’s detriment. This adaptation also changes the story a lot; it adds some structure, but most of these changes only seem to serve to make the book more politically correct… and the new ending tries its hand at heartwarming, but is significantly less so than in the original.

CURRENT BOOKTUBEATHON STATUS: Now onto my most anticipated book of the readathon, Bright We Burn! 💕🎶 Which was not included in my TBR, but would have been had I remembered that I was going to be going on a book shopping spree the day after writing it. 😅

Books Completed: 3
Pages Read: 1011
(+ Hours Listened: 4:12)
Challenges Completed: 6/7

#BookTubeAThon2018: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas.

A slave in the fortress of the fearsome Godmother, Pin remembers nothing of her life Before, but she knows there must be something beyond the enchanted walls that surround her – and it’s likely to be better than what’s within. Along with Shoe the shoemaker, she makes a break for freedom, but the world outside the fortress is a prison of another kind entirely.

My expectations for this book weren’t super-high (in fact, I almost got rid of it unread just last week, but hesitated for unknown reasons), but I was happily surprised by what I read. Pin was a really entertaining protagonist; I enjoyed her very blasé form of defiance a lot (particularly in part two), and I thought that Prineas’ concept of the Godmother – and the Story that she is an agent of – being the book’s real villain was incredibly clever, as was the way that several different fairytales were all woven together. Primarily, Ash & Bramble is of course a Cinderella retelling, but other tales that I noticed being referred to included The Twelve Dancing PrincessesRapunzel, and (perhaps most prominently) The Elves & the Shoemaker.

Apart from Pin, however, most of the cast was quite bland (though still likeable), and the Godmother’s motives seemed rather unconvincing. The romance was sweet, but not very well developed (as Pin didn’t spend very much time with either of her potential suitors), and the end of the book felt somewhat rushed… I’m aware that this book has a sequel, but it doesn’t cry out for one; it stands alone quite well.

CURRENT BOOKTUBEATHON STATUS: Starting on White Fang, with hat at the ready.

Books Completed: 2
Pages Read: 765
(+ Hours Listened: 2:27)
Challenges Completed: 4/7

#BookTubeAThon2018: Update 1 & Review

JUST FINISHED: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

Bored with her very ordinary life as a twelve-year-old in Omaha, September is delighted to be spirited away from her home by the Green Wind and his steed, the Leopard of Little Breezes. They bring her to Fairyland, where she sets out in search of adventure and fantastical friends – but Fairyland’s problems may be interfering with her plans far more severely than she expected.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this for quite a while, but was initially a little disappointed with it. I enjoyed the writing style, as well as all the characters, but found them to be flitting in and out of the story a lot more rapidly than I was expecting, and the story didn’t immediately grab me. (Structurally – and also thematically – it’s reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book that I like in theory, but don’t actually enjoy reading.) However, I got much more into it as the story went on, and by the time September met the Marquess I was fully invested; the book had by that point taken a slightly darker tone, and September had also found a companion who seemed to be sticking around. 👍

I really, really loved the ending, but my favourite thing about this book was September, and her relationships with the other characters she met. I’ve complained that many of the side characters were fleeting, but even so, they were still very memorable, and left their mark on September – and the characters with bigger roles were even more so. In particular, the friendship that grew between September and A-Through-L (or simply Ell) was wonderful to read about, and the inclusion of Saturday made for some incredibly heartwarming scenes.

With Fairyland, Valente has created a tale with the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, the heart of The Little Prince, and the adventure of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and yet somehow entirely original. Her writing here is not quite as breathtakingly beautiful as it was in Deathless (the only other one of her books that I’ve read), but her unique style is still very noticeable, and adds a lot to Fairyland’s narrative; and Ana Juan’s charming illustrations make a perfect accompaniment to the story.

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Already started on my next book, which is Ash & Bramble (this post took me a little while to write). 😊 And also an audiobook for car time (An Ember in the Ashes) – though I was already halfway through that before the readathon started.

Books Completed: 1
Pages Read: 328
Challenges Completed: 3/7

Library Scavenger Hunt: July

I was torn between two different books for this month’s challenge, to read a book without a picture on the cover,  my eventual choice and H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man – both uncharacteristically non-fictional, and (I will admit with some shame) not actually from the library; they’ve been sitting on my shelf for more than half a year, while I’ve looked longingly at them, but have ultimately found myself too busy with other books. ☹️ I am pleased, therefore, to have finally made the time to read at least one of them (despite breaking stretching rules which I set myself), and that book was…

WOMEN & POWER
Mary Beard

A write-up (and slight update) of two lectures that Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, which discuss ways in which Western society tries (and often succeeds) to keep women out of power and delegitimise those women who manage to achieve it regardless – and how those same methods have been modelled in antiquity, from Homer’s Telemachus telling his mother off for speaking amongst men, to Perseus, lauded for decapitating the monstrous-but-still-powerful Medusa.

The first chapter, The Public Voice of Women, is primarily a study of women as public speakers – or the lack of them. Beard begins with the example I mentioned earlier, where Telemachus tells his mother to go away and leave the talking to the men at the beginning of The Odyssey, and goes on to talk about various other women in antiquity (both historical and mythological) who have tried to speak up outside the home, and been dismissed, or ridiculed, or seen as un-feminine because of it. The thing that I found most interesting in this first essay was actually the exceptions that Beard gives us; examples of the rare times when the classical world considered it acceptable for women to be given a voice. Specifically, when denouncing a rapist, or discussing “women’s issues”, or representing a group that is only made up of other women – but never when speaking on any issue that might be thought to concern society as a whole.

Afterwards is the 2017 lecture, Women in Power, which draws heavily on the tale of Perseus and Medusa as an example of powerful women being seen as a threat to be defeated, illustrated by the many, many depictions that exist of various female politicians as Medusa – most notably Hillary Clinton, with one particularly striking image showing Trump-as-Perseus holding up her severed head. This chapter also discusses the tactics that women in power use to make themselves be taken more seriously – often by making themselves seem more masculine. Beard compares this with classical figures like Athena (among others), who, by taking on an un-womanly role, became something other than a woman; she could be a woman or she could be powerful, but to be both was a contradiction in terms.

I wouldn’t really qualify Women & Power as the manifesto that it claims to be, as it doesn’t really offer any suggestions on what can be done to rectify this tendency of society, but it is a very interesting collection of observations, and will undoubtedly open a few eyes. Personally, I leave this book with a re-discovered appreciation for those women who speak out, and are brave enough to bear the consequences, and a vague desire (which may or may not pass) to read Herland, a book that Beard refers to a few times, about an all-female utopian society.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]