This review is carefully written so as to be free of major spoilers.
At the very beginning of Illuminae, Kady breaks up with her boyfriend Ezra on the same day that their planet is destroyed. Evacuated in separate space ships, Ezra ends up on the Alexander and Kady on the Hypatia. What follows is an epic space saga featuring separated ex-lovers, split up families, an out-of-control space ship and a deadly virus. But amidst all of this, Kady suspects that there is a more nefarious plot at play, and is determined to uncover it. In her investigation, as events unfold, Kady unwittingly finds herself in the strongest position to help her loved ones and resist.
Kady and Ezra are both compelling, though Ezra serves as more of an every-man and while Kady is a firecracker and a fighter. (As you might imagine, I found myself far more compelled by Kady.) Later in the book, a third main character joins. AIDAN’s portrayal is so original and so well-written that I fell in love with the books for this one character.
The plot, character, suspense and mystery are all excellent. But what blows this book out of the park is the fact that it is designed to be a visual sensory experience, and that it does this with gusto, sass and a distinct voice. The entire book is designed to look like a case file being presented in court: every “scene” is a series of emails, a transcription of a radio conversation, a printout of an IM chat, a transcription of an interview, a transcription of surveillance video camera footage… And the voice of the transcriber comes across as well—there’s even some sass in the briefing notes that accompany certain files. There are pages and pages of names in the casualty list of a genocide; pages and pages of faces to accompany those names. It isn’t a fluffy story, and these details drive home the impact of the events that the characters have lived through. All of these are accompanied by details: scribbles over a printout of an order, edits made to transcriptions…
I admit that this made me a little trepidatious when I started reading. Will this still be compelling? I wondered. Will I be able to get into the characters this way? I needn’t have worried. In Illuminae, the format of the book doesn’t detract from the story: it enhances it. Some parts of the files, such as the countdown clocks and the more artistic pages that only serve to convey a single moment/event/feeling, worked from a storytelling perspective for the reader, but I felt were a little out of keeping with the notion that this is supposed to be a case file presented to the court to persecute those responsible for the travesties that the characters have lived through. But once I reached the end of Illuminae, I was alleviated of these thoughts once I realized who was compiling these files in-universe. At once, it made sense.
And then the sequel.
Gemina follows a different set of characters on the Heimdall, a space station that the Hypatia and Alexander had lost contact with in Illuminae. Hanna, the station commander’s daughter, her boyfriend Jax, her drug dealer Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella are the main players here.
Gemina, I felt, took a lot more advantage of the book’s non-traditional format. Hanna is an artist, who keeps a picture journal (illustrated by Marie Lu). This is used masterfully to draw the reader straight into Hanna’s life and relationships. I said that I didn’t have any problem relating to the characters in Illuminae despite the format. But the way I was drawn in to relate to Hanna just blew me away.
This is especially remarkable to me because on a purely objective level, I think had everything been equal, I would have been more invested in Kady. But the thing is, apart from her initial interview, the beginning of Illuminae seemed to focus more heavily on Ezra’s life. While I was compelled whenever I was reading about Kady, details were sparse and insights into her mind and thoughts were a long time coming.
By contrast, Hanna’s mind and heart are laid out to us in her journal very early on. This means that even if I didn’t necessarily like her as much as a person, I empathized and related to her every step of the way, because I started out knowing where she was coming from, and was following along as she developed and grew.
I would say that Illuminae was more cerebral, and Gemina was more emotional. Illuminae had more mysteries that cropped up left and right; puzzles of identity and layers of deception within the transcripts. This was not the case with Gemina. The questions in Gemina were more those of hidden motives and loyalties, and the only (small) puzzle of identity was a paradox that doubled as a deus ex machina. Of course, Kady is more of a hacker gal and Hanna is more of an action gal, so this is in keeping with their stories.
There were 25 pages or so that I found tedious near the end of Gemina. Let me just make it clear that one of my least favorite things in a story is repetitiveness. (This is why I frequently have problems with stories of parallel universes or time loops.) In these 25 or so pages, we were watching 2 storylines play out in 2 different parallel universes. So there were differences, but much of the stories were the same. For a page or 6, this would have been tolerable. But it simply went on too long for me. It saddens me to say this, because on an objective level, I think that 25 pages out of a 670 page book is a small enough proportion as to be justifiable. It was important to the plot, although I would have been happier fully watching one story play out and then just hearing key details of the other. But I wonder if this wouldn’t be more compelling to a teenager (i.e. the target audience) who is utterly immersed in the book. Wouldn’t I, as a teenager, have wanted to see exactly how both stories played out? Quite possibly.
Lest I give the impression that these are two entirely independent stories, let me make it clear that this is not the case. Gemina is definitely a sequel, interspersed with references to Kady (including a prank of hers that resulted in all audio files on the Heimdall being overwritten by her favorite—risque—pop song). In the last quarter of the book, Kady and her crew show up once more.
These books are young adult sci-fi in one of its most riveting forms. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I did notice that there were a couple of lapses on the parts of the authors: characters having answers that have been made clear to the reader but should not be to that character, for example. But given the nature of the books and the complexity of the story and format, I didn’t find myself holding on to these small details.
I await the next book in the Illuminae Files with bated breath.