Book Review: ILLUMINAE



This, my latest read, is the most visually unique book I’ve read all year. ILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff is the story of the destruction of a mining colony and the horrors that befall the survivors as they flee their attackers in spaceships. Add in a healthy dose of a psycho AI, a zombie virus, and general human panic, and you have a suspenseful, wild-paced race through space.


That in itself if all interesting, but what makes the book is the way it’s constructed. It’s an epistolary novel, which is to say it’s told not through direct narration, but rather log entries, interview transcripts, IM-chat screen shots, and computer data print-outs–all presented as this dossier of the Kerenza tragedy. I have generally mixed feelings about epistolary novels, despite having been enamored with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN in my early teens. I find them harder in which to become immersed, requiring more effort up-front to figure out the players and the setting. There are more layers, and it makes the reader work harder to analyze what’s being said, who’s saying it, and why (for better or worse). As such, I was not totally sold on ILLUMINAE’s conceit for the first 100 or so pages. 

And then I hit the middle of the book.

And then I was sold.

This book is beautiful. The authors subvert the distance between the story and the reader created by the epistolary format by having gorgeous non-traditional spreads, using the text as art to convey the isolation and frenzied motion of space battles and death among the stars. It verges on graphic novel territory, and the book feels cinematic in scope.

I loved the crazy AI as well, who reads like the love-child of HAL and Ultron. There’s something delightfully subversive and shiver-inducing about AI using faulty logic to just murder everyone, and the computer print-out pages of AIDEN’s thoughts were some of my favorite sections throughout. This is another case where the layout of the book aids the character development, as AIDEN’s thoughts are presented in a scrolling OS-ish environment, complete with narrative-ly significant [error] messages and commands. It’s an instance where I think the story needed to be told this way to achieve the desired effect, proving to me unusual format is more than just a gimmick.

The suspense is also excellent in this book. In the climax, I legitimately thought everyone was going to die–and let’s be honest, the body count IS quite high. Actually I find myself confused why ILLUMINAE is listed as YA sci-fi. It’s dark, man. Some of the sparing imagery gives me nightmares. (Little girl dragging a ripped-out human heart behind her like a teddy bear? Yikes!) Yes, yes, the main character is a 17-year-old girl, but if this was a movie, it could easily be rated R. It makes me wonder if the line between YA and adult fiction is blurring, or if I just don’t understand what qualifies as YA. Is it the lack of sex and swearing, but violence is ok? As the opening page of the book states, sure, the story opens with the deaths of thousands of people, but god forbid there be swearing, right?

Anyway. If you, dear readers, are looking for a unique, harrowing sci-fi book experience, check out ILLUMINAE. And then run and hide.

As the authors note in the acknowledgements–

“May you never find yourself solving Alcubbierre’s quandary on the walls of your domicile in your own blood.”

A good sentiment for any day.

Find this book on Amazon, B&N, and more!


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