Novel Review: Illuminae

This experimental YA novel, published in October, gives us space opera, corporate wrongdoing, deranged AI, virus-afflicted psychokillers, teen love, and weird typographic effects. It has received substantial praise. Does it live up to expectations? Would an older reader enjoy it?

Title: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files 01)
Author: Amie Kaufman and jay Kristoff

First published in October 2015.

ISBN-10: 0553499114
ISBN-13: 978-0553499117

Available from,,, and as a kindle.


A megacorporation takes out a small colony to conceal a crime, and the survivors must deal with a pursuing military, a bioengineered virus, zombiesque killers, a possibly-insane AI, and the heartache of teen love.

High Point:

The expected YA and teen romance tropes come fast and heavy in the first third of the book, as young people are forced into positions of responsibility while dealing with love and hormones. One of the book’s major twists, however, calls many of these tropes into question, as the third of the book becomes harrowing, suspenseful, and problematic—

–without entirely abandoning its target audiences’ expectations.

Low Point:

If you reread the “High Point,” you may discern the Low Point. Some readers will tire of angsty teen narration and slow tropey build-up long before they arrive at the novel’s strongest and most impressive sections—

–and some who stay for the ride will wish, in the end, that it did more to challenge its target audiences’ expectations.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Experimental though this novel may be, most of its story tropes will be familiar to readers and watchers of YA, space opera, zombieculture, and the like, and its experiemental graphic elements, while not typical of YA, are not particularly groundbreaking. I found several of them, initially entertaining, become actively annoying, as key moments get represented with concrete poems, text art, and waving strands of sentences flying across empty pages of space.

Imagery: 3/6 The novel takes the form of a dossier that leans heavily towards text-messages (which read exactly like contemporary ones) and official reports, so that only occasionally do we get descriptions of what anything looks like. We do receive some graphic representations of an effective, but fairly conventional starfaring future, and the occasional video surveillance report provides a more typical narrative.

Story: 5/6 The story features some impressive and engaging twists.
Characterization: 5/6 Kady Grant, the plucky teen heroine, and Aidan, the Hal-ish AI, develop into thoughtfully realized characters. The others are mostly fairly flat, but part of that derives from the manner of presentation, so I think the book should be cut some slack.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 4/6 The book is effectively, if unevenly, written.
The obscenities have been edited, as though someone put a marker through them. This is clever, given the real-world intended audience, and stupid, given the in-world source of the dossier.

Overall score: 5/6 The novel will work best for its intended audience. YMMV.

In total, Illuminae receives 30/42

Smartass Musing

This universe shares designers with Star Trek‘s federation. Both think it’s a good idea to make the bridge of a starship that might be facing conflict a highly visible hood ornament.

2 replies on “Novel Review: Illuminae”

  1. Regarding the musing, while I’m inclined to agree, I point out aircraft carriers and actually most naval ships. Granted they have had a reason in the past, but we do like to look out the windows.

    • True, but they’re not flying and not battling the kinds of weaponry we see in SF. As on Star Trek, the ships in this book betray nautical influences in their design.

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