Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is a mindblowing experience. Although nominally YA due to the protagonists, as with many other sci fi YA works, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult. The basic premise is that in the distant future, a corporation launches a devastating massacre against a remote mining colony. Two teens (still dealing with having just broken up) manage to escape but quickly wind up on separate ships trying to flee a warship determined to leave no surviving witnesses.
As with the best of thrillers, from there, the situation starts to get worse, and then the situation gets to that “How the heck did it get this bad?!! They are all going to die!!!” state, and its magnificent (and also more of a horror story than I expected). Beyond a finely crafted story and relatable characters, what really lifts this book up above the rest is the format. Illuminae is told in a “found format” of chat logs between the two teens, computer logs, memos, and the like. This sort of alternative format runs the risk of coming across as trite and silly – but not here. Kaufman and Kristoff’s use of the format is extremely effective. One space ship battle nicely captures the chaos of dogfight spacecraft. Another 2 page spread – you will know it when you get to it – I could have easily just glanced and moved on, but instead and read every bit of it while almost in tears.
Moving away from standard prose is in a way a very artificial presentation, but in another way, it can convey raw emotion so much more powerfully. It reminds of musicals in that regard. Sure, breaking into song is unrealistic, but in the best musicals, the music can carry so much more emotional content than ordinary dialogue. The format of Illuminae is much the same way. I would honestly no guess at the actual word count of this book, but the emotional journey is easily as deep and powerful as any novel I have read.
The only weakness is actually when they slide into a more traditional prose. In several points there is someone describing actions from video footage which at times was a little forced and not my favorite. However, it wasn’t overdone and for some portions it is necessary and thankfully is still enjoyable.
Overall, it was one of the best novels I read last year and certainly award-worthy. It is the first in a trilogy and the set up for the next one puts things in an interesting place and looks to be moving in a new direction rather than repeating the same storyline but with bigger stakes as often happens in a series.