If you’ve read any of the Starbound trilogy, written Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner, you can pretty accurately guess what’s going to be going down in The Illuminae Files, another series by Kaufman, with Jay Kristoff as her co-pilot. It’s futuristic, heavily sci-fi oriented and told through a series of official reports, classified communications, detailed illustrations and illicit chats (this is not an easy book to read on an E-Reader) between the newly broken up Kady and Ezra. All takes place in space, on the fleet carrying the remainder of their colony’s dwindling populace and fleeing the Lincoln, which will wipe them out when it catches up.
It’s very Battlestar Galactica. When I say Battlestar Galactica, I mean the Ron Moore reboot (that aired on Sci-Fi for a few seasons and starred Tricia Helfer, not the original that I didn’t watch and have very limited knowledge of). From the initial attack on the unsuspecting colony, to the haphazardly created fleet to finally, the destruction of one of the fleet’s vessels by their own fighter pilots, a Cylon wouldn’t have been unexpected. These initial similarities don’t take away from the intricate and creative details that make up this book. There’s no doubt it required incredible amounts of labor from Kaufman and Kristoff as well as various others. From composing the unconventional Illuminae‘s illustrations, to imagining its diagrams and wading through physics-related jargon, it still needs to maintain a cohesive and coherent plot. The acknowledgments are stuffed with kind helpers who provided them with all the knowledge necessary to write it.
Illuminae does what Starbound has already mastered in throwing a couple, usually on the opposite ends of something (Kady and Ezra are newly broken up), into a fight against a corporate entity. Kady and Ezra are barely seen on the page together in anything other than secretive chat sessions, but their relationship is well-traced enough even in this form to make a particular twist fairly impactful. Kady in particular is well-drawn, on the hunt for answers being denied by a secretive commanding force. A talented hacker, Kady teams up with another suspicious hacker to uncover the secrets the fleet’s upper echelon is keeping, while Ezra is conscripted to the military and becomes a pilot himself.
With both malfunctioning artificial intelligence and a virus that turns the infected into homicidal killers threatening the fleet, Kady and Ezra have more to worry about than being hunted by BeiTech. With more than a few creepy moments (including a couple of scary little girls) and a few very cute ones, Illuminae has more than enough to keep readers engaged and when it’s over, hungry for the next installment.
Spoilers abound below the cut.
Star-Crossed Lovers: Kaufman at least has a thing for couples stuck in futuristic battles against evil corporations, but the formatting of the novel doesn’t allow much for the longing looks and secretive glances. Until the end of the novel, the closest we get to seeing Kady and Ezra interact is in exchanges relayed to curious third parties and their own conversations. A twist arrives at the novel’s middle when AIDAN reveals Ezra’s death, admitting the chats Kady’s been participating in have been with the desperate and posing AI, intent on luring her back to the dying ship. The news of Ezra’s death is as big a kick in my gut to me as it is to Kady. For a moment it looks like Illuminae may go in the opposite direction of Starbound and have both pieces of its lovestruck couple dying. Ezra killed in the influx of infected peoples, and Kady sacrificing herself to destroy the Lincoln and save the surviving Hypatia. They would have a morbid reunion in the after life and have their deaths later avenged by a couple in the new installment who would also die. But apparently not. I’m not mad about it, but I grew very comfortable with that outcome, which would have been plenty possible considering the formatting on records obtained after the fact. Ezra turning up alive after this whole ordeal sucks the wind out of my sails a bit, but I suppose I can live with something resembling a happy ending. And Kady adopting the guise of Illuminae Group to take down Ezra’s evil mother Leanne Frobisher wouldn’t be as affecting with him dead, would it?
The Phobos Virus: I didn’t open up Illuminae expecting it to be scary. Some interplanetary shenanigans? Sure. But not bloodthirsty refugees, infected by a biochemical agent and becoming homicidal. Though the infection reveals itself through various physical symptoms, it’s the utterance “Don’t look at me” that commands the most dread. The infected populace is kept at arm’s length for a bit of time, their mania limited to a quarantined Hangar Bay 4 until AIDAN unleashes them to eliminate the fleet commanders. Our glimpses at them before their mass escape, beheading other passengers and arranging their bodies to spell “Help me”, are horrifying enough. But once they’re out and about, it inches closer to sci-fi horror, and the sensation is heightened by our disconnect with the transpiring events. Everything we see is told either through summaries of video footage or through AIDAN’S flowery prose, with the threat of Kady’s heroism being cut short hanging overhead. Intercut with pages displaying the increasing number of dead and infected, Phobos is appropriately harrowing, the rising numbers telling us all we need to know without seeing it firsthand. When we do get to see it, as ragtag groups of survivors attempt escape, the sequence is sprinkled with gory and tragic deaths.
Not many people survive the fleet’s journey, killed by their own in the name of the greater good or slaughtered by their infected allies. Though Kady and Ezra both survive to propel the story forward another day, their victory is hard won. We don’t get too many details about Ezra’s survival, but Kady gets tossed around the Alexander when the Lincoln finally catches up, is flushed with radiation and eventually finds her way back to safety. And sometime later, the Illuminae Group is born. There’s probably a year or so left to go before the next book is out, but Illuminae has more than enough material to hold readers over until the next installment.