Illuminae, by Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, is not a novel.

A novel, in its usual form, is a collection of pages with words on them, where evocative language is used to visualize a world. Illuminae is not a graphic novel, despite its visual and stylistic elements, because the story is not drawn to life with pictures. Instead, the first entrance in The Illuminae Files series is an immersive reading experience that combines elements of novels, screenplays, typographical art, and illuminated books to deliver a truly unique and memorable narrative.

At its heart, Illuminae is a space opera. Fans of Amie Kaufman’s Starbound trilogy (such as the incredible These Broken Stars), will recognize the specific attention to real-world scientific detail. You won’t find laser beams or photon bombs in the year 2575 – in fact, for all intents and purposes, this could be a modern Sci-Fi story but with space-faring battlecarriers and illegal mining corporations.

As a hobbyist astro-geek, I appreciated the hard reality of Illuminae, because it helped refine the story – I didn’t need to worry about fantastical inventions or new scientific discoveries; I could focus on the gripping, twisting storyline of teenagers Ezra Mason and Kady Grant.

These two ex-lovers find themselves on opposite spaceships after their homeworld – an off-the-books mining venture – is attacked by a rival mining corporation, the ruthless BeiTech, who attack with several powerful vessels and decimate the colony.

Illuminae focuses on three main spaceships, whose names and staff become ingrained in the reader’s mind over the course of the 600-page novel. Hypatia is a scientific research vessel, crowded far beyond capacity with refugees from Kerenza, the mining planet. Alexander is a battlecruiser, sent to help defend Kerenza despite its illegal operations, and is powered by an advanced artificial intelligence called AIDAN. The main plot follows the retreat of Hyaptia and a damaged Alexander, while they are pursued by Lincoln, BeiTech’s own battlecruiser.

With no help coming, it’s just these three ships and an unspeakable horror unleashed by BeiTech – a mutating virus that turns the inflicted into almost-zombies. But it’s not the infected that are the true threat – it’s the damaged and potentially psychopathic AIDAN aboard the nuclear-weapon-powered Alexander that poses the greatest danger.

Illuminae’s story borrows from clever, pre-existing space-opera tropes, but not for lack of imagination – it brings these familiar concepts screaming to life with the illuminated-novel format. The book is told through audio transcripts, surveillance footage transcripts, chat logs, private diaries, log files from AIDAN, communications between the ships, and even some remarkably clever ASCII art that questions your definition of what a novel really is.

What I found most moving about Illuminae were the chats between Ezra and Kady. As a child of the digital age, I think I can speak for a vast majority of people under the age of (say) 30, when I say that a large percentage of a couple’s conversations are now held digitally. Text messages and chats in novels or movies are usually cause for cringing as authors demonstrate their outdated knowledge of ‘txt spk’ — but Illuminae was nothing short of flawless; some of the chats were highly emotional and forced me to stop reading for a moment, and in the later stages, even the rogue AI, AIDAN, and its philosophical discussions of life, death, and desire were cause for some pulled heartstrings.

At the end of the day, Illuminae is not a book I can recommend with words alone – it has to be experienced. Is the format a little alien to most readers? Yes. But I regret not picking it up sooner though, because Kristoff and Kaufman have not only made all of Australia proud with this explosive and unforgettable novel, but they’ve forever changed my perception of what storytelling is all about.

The Good

An unusual novel format is brought to life by two fantastic and accomplished Australian authors. A thrilling space opera with believable characters, tense standoffs, and surprisingly deep musings about the nature of life itself. 

The Bad

Some of the stylistic elements were difficult to read, especially when curved text reached the inner fold; and the ending scene felt a little conceited with the return of believed-dead character.

The Verdict

A masterpiece of narrative design and visual composition; two Australian authors deliver a powerful, unforgettable reading experience that is haunting, thrilling, and emotional – an absolute must-read.

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