I currently need to go recover the scattered pieces of my completely blown mind. Then I’ll write my full review. Just…damn…
**An innumerable level of thanks to Random House Children’s for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**
I should have known that when Jay Kristoff said ILLUMINAE was “without a doubt the coolest book [he’d] ever written” and that he was “pretty sure you’ve never read a book like [ILLUMINAE]”, it was going to be good.
I underestimated the level of epic — oh did I ever underestimate the level of epic adventure and excitement and sheer terror this book would bring. I mean, yeah, it’s been one of my top five most anticipated releases of the year and shot up into my top 3 after I powered through Kristoff’s LOTUS WAR trilogy, but still…
I think I’m in shock.
The “why-wasn’t-this-book-in-my-life-until-now?!?” kind of shock.
I’ll be honest: I’m both one of the best and worst audiences on the planet. If you hook me, you basically have me for life. I’ll want you to wring out my emotions, to shoot me out of an airlock into the cold, dark vacuum of space and squish my heart into pieces; or, you know, make me feel a bright and fluffy like a freshly-laundered teddy bear. Either way: I’m yours.
The flip side is that if you can’t hook me, or hook me and then fail to deliver on that hook, I’m probably going to be a very negative critic.
ILLUMINAE not only hooked me at the start with its rather unconventional but insanely clever top-secret dossier-style presentation — massive kudos to the internal art/design team at Random House Children’s because it really is stunning — but reeled me in with its weird and urgent, tension-ridden, and horrifically violent plot; before adding in the cherry on top of dynamic, complex, and realistic characters about whom I cared…deeply.
I could warn that this is not everyone’s book. As I said: it’s unconventional and it truly is horrific with its violence and gore. But the base ingredients for just about any addicting and memorable novel — emotions, internal conflict, urgency, tension, action, etc. — are all there in spades. Like I said: I love getting my emotions toyed with. This book did more than just toy with them. Reading “last emails” from people to their loved ones? Sobbing. Captains basically declaring war on each other over one’s actions? Hyperventilating. A dogfight in space between a vastly outnumbered force? Blood racing. Having to read the “After Incident” report? Cold dread and sweats.
Hooked. Completely. The plot is so intricate, woven so beautifully, that you can’t help but start swearing as you read. It’s going to elicit an emotional response from any reader.
Our driving protagonists — the two with whom we spend the most focus time — are Kady and Ezra. Frankly, they’re dynamite in every scene. They speak like real teenagers — I swear, I’ve heard every single dirty joke Ezra cracks from the lips of my own brothers — who are forced into more than one situation that on two ships floating thousands of kilometers apart in the vast emptiness of space. Their emotional connection is that: emotional. Unlike most YA pairings, these two characters aren’t together because of what ultimately boils down to physical (or sexual) attraction. Considering they’re apart the entirety of the novel, that would certainly make their relationship impossible to sustain. But these two have a history, one that ultimately needs to be sorted out. Whether or not they do is up to the reader to find out, but you can’t help but root for these two kids who have so much gumption, so much courage under fire. I loved them apart, but I also loved their chemistry and banter together. Trust me, they’re just one of many characters with whom you’ll fall in love.
I mean, heck, I even cared for AIDAN:, the completely insane computer — and I mean insane in an “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” kind of way. Yet somehow AIDAN becomes out philosophical epicentre of ILLUMINAE and steals almost every scene he is in. I’ve often found artificial intelligence, and its portrayal in science fiction as a kind of double-edged sword: you either go for it developing emotions or not. Consciousness is one thing, emotions are another. But they often go so hand-in-hand that they intertwine. Kristoff and Kauffman use AIDAN to ask some phenomenal questions, to make the reader think about life and the innumerable perspectives of it — and not just the individual, but of its relationship to the universe. Talk about feeling utterly insignificant.
Side note: I forever imagine Joaquin Phoenix voicing AIDAN because, “AM I NOT MERCIFUL?”
If you’ve read the book, that line should be making you weep right now.
I can only imagine both how fun and how difficult author collaborations must be. As a reader, I wonder what it is I’m going to be getting: will I be able to easily spot which author supplied with part or will the entire piece blend seamlessly? It’s the latter in this case, if you haven’t guessed. As a fan of both Amie Kauffman’s STARBOUND trilogy — which she also cowrites with another author, Megan Spooner — and Jay Kristoff’s LOTUS WAR trilogy, I read ILLUMINAE and could not tell you which author wrote which part. I didn’t know what hit me, because this novel is nothing like what either of these authors have written before.
Actually, this novel was truly unlike anything I’d ever read before; it was fresh and clever and downright spectacular. Sure, some of the elements are going to seem familiar, like a cobbling together of tons of different science fiction scenarios — but they shouldn’t work together, and certainly not this well. Somehow, Kristoff and Kauffman managed the impossible. They brought something so new that it’s left me completely amazed.
Long story short: this book is glorious.