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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