This series has been on my radar and TBR for years now and I finally decided it was time. I originally planned to post each of the reviews separately, but then it turned out I couldn’t put this series down, I binged the crap out of it, so you’re getting it all at the same time. So, buckle in for a hella long review post:
The Illuminae Files Trilogy
“In this moment, she’s both ordinary and extraordinary. Just like everyone else in this story.”
ATTN: this book is an insane and wild ride, from start to finish! I always find it a little difficult to full on review books that are in a series. For one thing, after the first one, everything I say could potentially be a spoiler. For another, the story is really not over until the final installment is read, and I find judging in pieces hard. If you’ll notice, most of the books I’ve read in series have been reviewed all together, in one post, after I’ve binged the whole thing. There are exceptions, of course, like Crazy Rich Asians, which could all sort of be read as standalones anyways. Or, sometimes, if I read series that aren’t fully published yet (i.e. The Poppy War) or, occasionally, series like The Broken Earth, that are intense and deep and I know I’ll need to have space between reading each of the pieces and therefore want to write/post reviews before I forget all my thoughts. So, basically, I guess there are actually a lot of exceptions. But here, here is something I have never encountered before. And entire opening novel that I feel like is both a spectacular first salvo of a greater epic tale and, simultaneously, an incredible standalone adventure. Like, standalone as in after finishing, I would be ok waiting for the next part of the story because this one ends in a satisfying and conclusive way, yet the hints we have for what the next books with cover are tantalizing AF and I still can’t wait to pick up the next one.
First, a summary. Kady and Ezra broke up this morning. And understandably, they thought that would be the worst thing they were going to face for the rest of the day. But then their planet is invaded, violently attacked, and they are some of the sole survivors that make it out on three escape ships. Different ships, but at least they both make it out alive – most of their friends and family are not so lucky. And things are just getting started. There’s a biochemical weapon that was used and is causing horrific psychoses among survivors, there’s a AI system that got damaged in the retreat to the point where it’s making some unprecedented (and not-override-able) decisions, and there’s the matter of one of the attacking ships being hot on the trail of the evacuees…trying to wipe out the last evidence of the invasion. Meanwhile, Kady and Ezra are realizing that, just perhaps, their feelings for each other aren’t completely gone after all. Too bad it looks like there isn’t a lot of time left to do anything about it.
Ok WOW. I mean, I know when this came out it was a bestseller and I barely saw a single bad review. But I mean, hype can get out of hand, we all know that. And I’m not always in the mood for crazy sci-fi space adventures and espionage and conspiracies. The tension and “edge-of-seat” reading experience, while amazing, can be exhausting. And I have to be in the right mood for it. Well. I’m glad I waited, because this was all of those things and more, as far as blood-pressure-raising thrill and excitement go, and being in the right mood for it made things that much better. This book is like 600 pages and I literally read it in two days. I could not put it down. And it’s not just from the phenomenal pacing and pedal-to-the-metal action. No, this is, by far, one of the most visually striking and creatively written books I’ve ever read. It’s presented as a dossier of all documents, etc. collected from the events that are unfolding – transcriptions of conversations, memos, recordings, countdowns, written descriptions of surveillance video, text message conversations, and more. And it’s not done like any old epistolary novel. No. It’s got graphics and doodles and “classified” stamps and coffee ring stains and more…as if everything we are reading was legitimately collected from any remaining evidence of the events. And the parts that describe space battles are written in weaving words, curlicue shapes, in graphics of blasts/explosions, in patterns following the trajectories of missiles. I literally cannot do it justice with a normal review – you have to go pick up the book and look at it yourself.
Now, back to the plot and stuff. Holy crap it grabs you and doesn’t let go. There are so many layers of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and who do you trust and how do you know and what actually is the best course of action to save the most lives? I almost couldn’t keep up with the leaps and jumps of theory and hypotheses bouncing around in my head. And I loved that. Plus, I am definitely a sucker for an end of the world romance situation, so I was cheering hard for Kady and Ezra (and even if parts of that story are unlikely…I’m not mad about it). I also LOVE a strong female lead, one who fights the odds and never gives up and has a penchant for breaking rules to save the people she cares about (added bonus, this particular female lead is also a teach genius – I’m not personally that into science, but I strongly support a ladies in STEM situation like this). Another bonus, for me, of the fast-paced (and sometimes super scary) unfolding drama of the plot is that I never stopped to think too deeply for the reasons/people behind it. It just wasn’t the focus. So when, at the end, we get a hella shock/twist addressing those questions, it totally took me by surprise. I definitely gasped out loud. I LOVE that feeling. Another thing I want to say is how much I was surprised about how emotional I felt at certain parts, especially in relation to some of the AI sections. I mean really, its artificial intelligence, but the authors did a great job evoking tons of feels there. Plus, of course, there was (no spoilers here) a ton of death and destruction and fear and more, so obviously some of those parts got tough-going at times as well. And last, if you are a YA fantasy/sci-fi reading nerd (like me) keep your eyes peeled for some super fun Easter egg name drops of other authors of the genre. I got a big smile every time I found one – they’re small (and not obvious), but the satisfaction and fun is real!
Anyways, basically, I just want to add my voice to the chorus saying that this novel is just straight up fantastic. I cannot wait to pick up the next one(s)!
So I’m binging the crap out of this series, obviously. As it’s only taking me a couple of days to read each of these books and they’re all over 500 pages long. It’s that perfect mix of compelling, fast-paced, easy to read and edge-of-your-seat exciting that is keeping my glued to them (to the exclusion of everything else I’m supposed to be reading right now). But honestly, that’s exactly what I was hoping for. I’ve had a really intense reading year so far (lots of serious/contemporary fiction type reads) and I needed some escapist lit to get my summer kicked off. This is perfect.
In regards to timeline, Gemina, picks up right where Illuminae leaves off. But the major difference is the perspective. We open on board the Heimdall space station, the station the Hypatia is heading towards, with all the Kerenza refugees (including our beloved Kady and Ezra from book one). Naturally though, BeiTech is still attempting to cover tracks for the Kerenza disaster…and they’re sending a whole team of “auditors” (read: trained operatives/assassins) to do the dirty work. But clearly, they did not account for the space station’s resistance, led by Hanna (captain’s daughter), Nik (unregistered resident and part of a crime family network), and Nik’s cousin Ella. They also clearly did not account for wormhole malfunctions and deadly drug-producing space alien creature things.
Similar to the last installation, the story is told in “dossier” of documents, transcriptions, messages, recordings, etc. And it has, again, some of the most creative and artistic visuals, including text/passages through pipes when our characters are, IRL (ish), crawling through pipes, and various drawings/entries from Hanna’s journals. So, like Kady in book one, Hanna is our primary voice/perspective. She’s a kickass strategist and martial artist, complements of her single father’s father-daughter bonding activities (can we, again, hear it for the strong AF ladies in this series?!). And Nik, who has my heart way more than Ezra ever did (though I was full-on into his romance with Kady too, of course), because I am a sucker for a “bad guy” who is actually secretly the good guy. Like, past being drawn to the “bad for you guy” I just love the dark pretense over a legit heart of gold. Ugh. Plus, I am into tattoos and his sound (and look, from Hanna’s drawings) gorgeous. Anyways, and then Ella. AGAIN, ladies in computer/tech/STEM, can I get a “hell yea!”? And, physical disability rep too! So much to admire there. The relationships in this one had me more emotionally invested too. I’m not sure exactly why, because it was more than just the type of characters that I was more interested in…but, I know I choked up more in this book than the last one.
Bottom line, same as with the first one, I literally could not put down this book. The short sections and constant action make it impossible to not try to read “just one more page.” (See what I did there?) And though there were, of course, some parts that stretch belief (same as in the first one), I can’t say it bothered me too much because I was so into the story. The only thing I was truly less into here, as opposed to the first book, was the whole situation with the wormhole. I won’t give away what actually happens/how things work out, of course. But it’s a complex physics theoretical situation that, while it was explained in lovely layman’s terms, still stretches my brain farther than it was interested in going at times. This happens to me any time this type of explanation/plot device is used, and it’s just not my favorite. Well, and a small second thing, is that one particularly emotional point was dulled somewhat because a similar plot device was used at a critical point in the first one. It’s not bad in either case separately, but put together, I’m not sure I like it used so freely within the same series (it makes for unfortunate predictability). But as I said, things moved fast and I got past both issues quickly.
Other things to note: First, I loved the “voices” of our youth protagonists. Their chats are so wonderfully full of slang and snark and jokes that both cut the tension of the greater story and ring wonderfully true to life. It’s one of my favorite things about these books. Also, the eventual (we all know it’s coming, so no spoilers) “meeting” of Ez and Kady and Nik and Hanna and Ella, virtual though it was, lived up to my expectations. AIDAN included, of course. Relatedly, I am into the greater meaning that was put behind the Illuminae Group after the first book and I was actually literally clapping with excitement at the way it grew by the end of this one. I am most excited to see how these wonderfully precocious and attitude-filled adolescents bring the pain against BeiTech to close out this trilogy. I love when the underestimated/overlooked become unstoppable.
Truly I cannot wait for the finale…I’m off to start it immediately.
And here we are, THE FINALE of this mind-blowingly original trilogy that I haven’t been able to put down for two straight weeks (which is actually a surprisingly short amount of time, considering how long each of these books is). Anyways, my heart cannot believe this series is over.
This book picks up right where the last one left off. Ezra and Kady and Ella and Hanna and Nik are all aboard the Mao…and everything is about to hit level 11. And then there’s some new additions. Kady’s cousin, Asha, is back on Kerenza. She’s still alive, dealing with life under the BeiTech invasion force, and part of a small resistance effort that, as far as they can tell, is really only extending the time before their inevitable “liquidation.” Also on Kerenza is Rhys, a part of the BeiTech forces, but an old flame of Asha’s who just might be the linchpin who, if Asha can turn him, could help the resistance prevail and save the lives of the rest of the survivors. Oh, and there’s the whole issue of BeiTech forces completely outnumbering and outgunning the Kerenza survivors, both on land and in the air, and all of them needing the same *almost repaired* mobile jump station to get back to civilization and end/tell this story. PHEW.
So I loved how much we get to see of everyone in this finale. Now, I understand that means that there is the whole “more perspectives” = “less screen time/development” for each one. But I think it worked out the best it could have under the circumstances. There is so much going on in this one, with all the added issues and points of view that we get as more characters get introduced with each additional piece of the story, that there was bound to be a drop in individual character development and detail in favor of overall plot resolution. However, at this point in the overarching story, I was so invested in the plot and how things would wrap up…it was all I could do to read/turn pages fast enough to keep up with how badly I wanted to know the ending. Basically what I’m saying is that the pacing and action in this last book was everything I was expecting it to be, based on the rest of the series, and perhaps even more. Which I can only assume is easier said than done, so my hat’s off to the authors. This was an edge-of-seat reading from beginning to end.
Though I know I said that the character development was slightly second-seat in this installment, there are still a few things I want to point out. Kady’s father (Isaac) and the way he parentally “adopted” all these teen heroes/heroines, was emotional and inspiring and a couple times caused me to tear up (Did his notes to them before the “final battle” get anyone else smack dab in the feels? No? Just me?) And on that note, I liked that, even though our YA peeps remain the main characters and protagonists, there is a recognition in the writing that they are “just kids” – with the requisite adults-uninterested-in-taking-orders-from-them issues that would obviously arise in this situation if it were real life. That’s not something usually (if ever) addressed in YA fantasy/sci-fi and I liked the way it was handled. They don’t lose their awesomeness, but the clear “it’s not ideal but they’re the best for the jobs under the circumstances and will rise to the challenges magnificently” is a nice change of pace and grounded the characters in a better reality (if you will, considering the plot is clearly fantastical…). Asha’s redemption situation with Katya was a lovely side-plot and a great linchpin moment for the ending. Possibly, it’s one of the only believable ways the land battle could have ended in an even marginally happy way, and, as a plot device, it was executed on point. And last, I am a sucker for some YA meant-to-be romance shit and this series did not disappoint on that front. Boom. Oh, I guess that wasn’t last, because I have one more comment: AIDAN. What an incredibly fascinating “character.” Making the impossible choices and taking the bad rap as the “monster,” in its own words, but brought back online every time because it was so necessary. I just….it was so cool.
Finally, the writing. As with the first two, the dossier presentation of the story was carried out perfectly. Such a creative story telling method, and carried out in a way that was interesting and added to the “atmosphere” without getting boring or tedious. I also appreciated that, in general, the tone stayed the same as the first books, even though the stakes were getting ever higher. What I mean by that is, the snark and language and teen-level communication remained on point, though dampened slightly and appropriately when events called for it. That was a perilous line well-walked, as far as ambiance.
This series was superbly entertaining, from start to finish. I totally understand the hype and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it. I am also super glad that I managed to delay until all the books were published, because I really don’t think I could have waited for the next one with anything resembling patience. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time reading these books and was also (no spoilers, promise) really happy with the ending; realistic or not, it’s exactly what I wanted. Everyone needs a message of David vs Goliath once in awhile. If you are looking for some fast-paced, detailed, uniquely told, YA sci-fi with some sweet romances and non-stop action (basically, the ideal “I need a break from heavier reads and a chance to just enjoy reading for its entertainment value”), I definitely recommend The Illuminae Files. I’ll miss these characters.