Reviews Revisited – Illuminae

This is the transcript of my latest solo podcast episode – you can listen to the audio version here.


Hello and welcome to Reviews Revisited, part of the Will You Still Love It Tomorrow podcast. I’m Annie and, in each Reviews episode, I pick something I’ve reviewed some time since 2005, reread or rewatch it, and then compare my reactions. Fair warning: there will be spoilers.


This month, my pick is Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman.


Before revisiting it, my recollections of my original experience of encountering this book/film are as follows:


Before Dave and I started the Will You Still Love It Tomorrow podcast, I was a big fan of another podcast – Novel Predictions, in which, you’ve guessed it, two friends take it in turns to get the other one to read a book they love and that the other one doesn’t really know. Then they come together to discuss their reactions. It’s possible that regular listeners to our show may find this concept familiar…


Anyway, one of the friends on Novel Predictions is more into sci-fi and fantasy, and the other is more into contemporary fiction and classics. The former raved a lot about The Illuminae Files, saying it’s the most amazing YA series ever written (though it doesn’t seem like they did an episode on it – but, looking that up has led me to discover that they restarted the podcast last summer after more than three years on hiatus, which is awesome!).


So, I decided to give Illuminae a try – I want to say, in 2017 or 2018? I definitely remember reading it on one of our group gaming holidays, but I can’t remember which one. It’s a sci-fi series, and I think it’s about a group of teenagers who get mixed up somehow in an interplanetary war? The one thing I do remember about it is that it’s entirely made up of interview transcripts, official reports, text and email conversations, and other different types of documents, and that the physical version of the book is formatted in a very interesting way. I don’t remember any details of the plot or characters, and I don’t have a strong sense of how much I liked or disliked it at the time – though I never continued with the series, so perhaps that indicates a tip towards the dislike end of the scale…


The blurb from GoodReads is as follows:


“This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.


The year is 2575, and two rival mega-corporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than a speck at the edge of the universe. Now with enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra — who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to evacuate with a hostile warship in hot pursuit.


But their problems are just getting started. A plague has broken out and is mutating with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a web of data to find the truth, it’s clear the only person who can help her is the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.


Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents — including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more — Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.”


And that’s how I discovered the female protagonist’s name is actually Kady and not Katie – because when Americans say Katie, it always sounds like Kady anyway.


The reason Illuminae was so high on the list to revisit for this solo series of episodes is because one of my favourite BookTubers – Emmie – also rates it as one of her favourite book series of all time.


I’m approaching this reread a bit differently to The Secret History because I don’t own a copy of Illuminae and don’t want to buy one. However, I’ve heard that the audiobook version is really excellent – and I’m very intrigued as to how a book made up of different documents and transcripts will work in audio format. So, I’m going to listen to it and see – which technically makes it a different reading experience to the one I had before. I’m also not sure how it’s going to work, doing deep analysis of an audiobook – I’m hoping I’ll be able to knit in between making notes – but let’s just give it a try and see what happens!


So, here’s what I thought on revisiting it in 2024.


The audiobook version of Illuminae is a full-cast production, which I don’t normally like. I don’t mind two narrators, if there are two separate viewpoints, but more dramatic formats usually don’t work that well for me, for some reason.


And, right from the start, there’s annoyance – the introductory section is read by a voice that’s been distorted to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to understand it, which isn’t great… That voice comes back frequently as kind of a narrator, tying all the different narratives together – I’m thinking it’s maybe some kind of AI reporting to the powers that be about what’s going on – and in the audio version it automatically sounds creepy and evil because of the voice distortion, but I don’t know if that’s borne out by the story later on – though I guess the fact that it’s spying on Kady and Ezra’s communications and also trawling through all sorts of other data to put together the narrative doesn’t suggest benevolent intentions.


And then, when it moves into one of the interview transcripts, the audio format also doesn’t work that well – there’s one narrator reading both the interviewer’s questions (in quite a formal way) and Kady’s responses (in a softer tone) – but it’s obviously someone reading a transcript, rather than trying to present it as an actual conversation, and the narrative is much smoother, less emotional and more structured than this kind of interview would actually be. This is the case for both protagonist narrators (Kady and Ezra, though Ezra’s lines do sound a bit more natural), so there’s some dissonance in terms of how it’s being read versus the type of document it’s meant to be that I’m not sure would be so evident when reading it in text format. They at least don’t read out ‘interviewer’ and ‘Kady Grant’ or ‘Ezra Mason’ with every switch in dialogue, which would have been really annoying. And having actual voices reading it out perhaps allows greater connection with the characters than reading documents might, but for me, it’s also harder to take in the details of who’s who and what’s what when listening.


The story drops you right into the action, though – it’s clearly set in the future and there’s been some kind of attack on the colony where the teenage protagonists live, and they’re being interviewed after the fact, so we have to figure out what’s going on as it progresses. Getting both Kady’s and Ezra’s versions of events, flipping back and forth between the two of them, works very well to orient the reader and allow us to get to know them quickly.


There’s a great YA summation from Ezra’s interview:

“Ezra: The world is ending all around us, and we’re yelling about college applications and commitment shit. Can you believe it? Interviewer: You’re 17, right? Ezra: Nearly 18. Interviewer: Then yes, I can believe it.”


One point from the colony attack is that Kady talks about running over enemy soldiers in the car she’s stolen, in order to get to a wounded Ezra – and she sounds completely calm and unaffected by it. Then, much, much later, she has to shoot someone infected by the virus, after it’s been established that they’re no longer really human – and she completely flips out about having to kill someone, so that’s not very consistent.


Overall, it’s a good setup – colony attacked without warning, civilians evacuated on two spaceships (with the two protagonists on different ships), jump capability unavailable, enemy in pursuit, conscription of teens into the military as soon as they turn 18, which the two protagonists are about to.


There’s a report about civilian media being suspiciously accurate and the distorted overview voice says:

“Most Unipedia readers will be wearing tin foil hats in their mother’s basement.”

I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to ridicule your core audience!


But using reports and blog posts is a clever way of including lots of information in text format. Again, though, it doesn’t really work in audio, because it’s just someone reading out a ton of exposition. 


I find it very interesting that Kady is flagged as being unsuitable for conscription because she flunks the tests deliberately but the powers that be figure it’ll be too much trouble to keep her in line! She’s then flagged as being a security risk because she keeps trying to hack the ship’s system. She’s frequently successful but the powers that be spot her doing it. And so do the Information Liberation Activists but she’s initially suspicious of them too.


Conversely, Ezra is identified as having PTSD and anger management issues, but since his anger is directed mostly at the enemy (for killing his father), the powers that be decide he’s perfect for conscription because he’ll attack without compunction and they don’t care if he gets killed.


I’m confused as to how he makes it to Second Lieutenant at the age of 18 after only a few months of training – it’s not as if his dad was alive and connected enough to buy him a commission… But another conscript later says they just handed out officer ranks willy-nilly to anyone who qualifies as a fighter pilot, which is a bit weird.


Then the book falls into the trap of all narratives based on reports or letters or journal entries – in Ezra’s after action report from his first combat mission, he includes way more detail than you would in any kind of report, even to the point of reporting long sections of direct action and dialogue verbatim, which nobody does when writing accounts of events.


The combat mission really reminds me of Space: Above and Beyond, which is a TV show we did for the main podcast in October 2023 – and is very similar in terms of young protagonists forced into military service for a space-based conflict that flares up unexpectedly at the start of the story.


The IMs between Ezra and McNaulty are very adolescent and overly crass for my tastes, and I don’t like the way they keep calling each other ‘chum’. It all leans into the YA painful romance aspect in a way that’s a bit off-putting. And it’s not just because I’m rapidly spiralling towards 50 because I’ve been massively invested in and affected by YA romance plots in recent years – Strange the Dreamer for one. It’s the adolescent boy vernacular that turns me off.


There’s also this quote that epitomises the biggest problem I have with this book:

“Briefing Note: Grant sets up a black hat mailbox to maintain highly illegal ship to ship communications during a period of covert interstellar war. Mason uses it to send her an image of a rose with the message: I’m sorry.”


Ezra makes references to things I’m pretty certain teenagers wouldn’t still be aware of in 2575 – or even now for that matter – like The Princess Bride and Judas’ thirty pieces of silver. Later, someone else references Dead Poets’ Society which I think is even less likely to be a credible reference in this time period.


Kady’s journal entries are actually quite affecting – and written in a much more realistic approximation of how someone would write a journal in this situation. They’re also really the only time you get the thoughts and feelings of any of the characters, since everything else is either reports or transcripts. Which makes it pretty hard to connect to the story emotionally. Kady and Ezra are the only two characters who get any real page-time and we’re never in Ezra’s head, so it all feels quite remote and clinical.


That said, even though I previously disliked McNaulty intensely, the after action report about what happens when his squad goes into the hangar bay to investigate the survivors from the ship that’s been destroyed and he’s left behind to die definitely got to me. But then the supposedly heartfelt IM exchange between Kady and Ezra after she sends the report to him was really cringe-worthy and kind of ruined the effect.


“We’re all just statistics to Command, just numbers…”


After the perhaps overly accurate adolescent boy-talk between McNaulty and Ezra, this exchange between Kady and Ezra is very much not how 18-year-olds would talk in text. So the presentation of the different types of communication feels very inconsistent. Ezra, in particular, waxes lyrical in a very unrealistic way, especially when quoting Shakespeare. Maybe that’s a consequence of there being two authors?


The AI coming back online was presented very effectively and I liked its viewpoint of the battle. But, on his second time ever piloting a fighter, how is Ezra suddenly incredibly skilled?


Aidan the AI is great – unexpectedly poetic and I’m not sure why a spaceship AI would be that way, but I loved it.


“I look outside my skin. Watch the meat dance in the silence.”


Its slightly corrupted directives are brilliantly argued – it persuades itself that the best way to protect most of the humans is to kill various of the others.


“You will find I am in full compliance of fleet directives. You are a threat to fleet security, General.”


The powers that be are trying to shut the AI down again after the battle and Aidan feels he is the only hope for the fleet to reach safety, so the best way to protect the majority is to kill those in charge – and he uses the ‘zombie’ type victims of the virus to do it. He then decides the best way to protect the virus victims is also to kill them, so they won’t be subjected to experimentation if they survive to be captured again.


It keeps repeating, “Am I not merciful?” I wonder if that’s a deliberate reference to Commodus in Gladiator. That came out 15 years before this book, but the authors were 20 and 27 at the time, so they would likely have seen it.


But the voice for Aidan isn’t the same as the creepy over-arching narrative voice of the ‘briefing notes’, so it’s still not clear who or what that is, and evidently it’s not the possibly evil AI, as I suspected earlier on.


Then, after finally drawing me in, the narrative goes awry again, with a commentary from an analyst watching video of Byron Zhong, the rebel agent Katy has been communicating with trying to escape the zombies and warn the other ship – and it’s all mockery of his physical attributes and laughing at how desperate he is to get somewhere safe.


Byron’s subsequent conversation with Kady is very heartfelt and affecting – in fact, I believe and invest in the connection between those two much more than I do between Kady and Ezra. I think that’s because we see the whole of the development of their friendship, from their first antagonistic meeting to them growing to really like each other. With Kady and Ezra, though, all that happens before the book starts and we’re just told they’re in love, rather than being shown any evidence of it or any real interaction that backs it up.


The tone of the analyst commentary isn’t very realistic – surely, even if he’s the kind of person who likes making fun of other people, he wouldn’t do it when watching videos of people in the kind of situation that occurs towards the end of the book – ie them being in mortal danger and terrified for their lives.


This also becomes true of the various text conversations that happen around this time – people wouldn’t type in full sentences and tap out every thought that goes through their heads when in desperate peril. And I don’t think Kady would stop to write a deeply reflective journal entry in the middle of the countdown to the ship captain deciding whether or not to abandon the people on the other ship – of whom she believes Ezra is one.


Then, it turns out something must have got under my skin about this book, because even though I intensely disliked McNaulty in the few scenes where we got his direct input, I actually reacted out loud with a heartfelt, “Awwww!” when Kady found his corpse. And again, I gave an audible gasp when she found Byron alive but realised he was infected by the virus. But then my emotional investment was totally ruined by McNaulty’s last audio recording being read by the annoying, mocking analyst guy, rather than being played in McNaulty’s actual voice… And the same happened with Kady and Byron’s first face to face conversation.


Great YA summation again from Aidan:

“I feel it’s my duty to point out that you’re alone in a derelict spaceship, surrounded by pipe-wielding maniacs, and now might not be the time for pillow talk.”


I’d forgotten the twist that Aidan claims Ezra died in the Lincoln attack and all Kady’s subsequent conversations with him were actually with Aidan – and that had a bit of an emotional punch too.


And by this point I was somehow totally with Kady and McCall trying to get the thousand uninfected survivors off the ship. Great action writing. Then it faded again when the countdown to the Lincoln’s second arrival started to drag.


The book is pretty grim and very creepy in places – when the afflicted gained access to the communication systems and started spouting terrifying threats in evil clown voices directly in my ear, it was extremely unsettling. And the body count runs into the thousands.


Then the epilogue where it’s revealed that Ezra’s mum is the head of the enemy corporation, that the distorted ‘briefing note’ voice that’s been compiling the whole story is Kady and that Ezra is actually still alive kind of diminishes all the significance and emotional impact of the climax. 


Ah well, I guess it had to set things up for the sequel…


And the subsequent flashback to Ezra coming to see Kady once her quarantine ends is also reported in the annoying analyst voice, which detracts from the emotion of their reunion even more.


Diversity data:


I’m assuming Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two protagonists, are white.

Byron Zhong is a fairly main character and lots of the other people writing the reports, etc, have names that come from diverse origins.

When the casualty list from the Copernicus is read out, the names are also very diverse.

But there’s potential mental health disparagement when Katie is impatient with Byron and he says, “Did you miss your meds or what?”

There’s also fat-shaming with the ridicule of Byron’s physique by the analyst.




Dare I admit that I started listening to the audiobook at 1.5 speed only a couple of hours in and then increased that to 1.75 and was actually on 2.75 speed by the end? It’s not a ringing endorsement, to be sure – but I think it was also to do with audio not being a great format to concentrate really hard on a book and make in-depth notes. It’ll be interesting to see if the same problem occurs with later books, where I’m more sure I’m going to enjoy them.


Anyway, after not really being invested in the story for most of the book, things did improve towards the end. As the stakes got higher, I discovered I did care about at least some of the characters, though still not really the two protagonists, Kady and Ezra. I think I was actually most attached to Aidan the AI, since his journey from mass murder prompted by corrupted logic to his desire to understand the humans and his appreciation of Kady’s abilities was very well drawn.


While I appreciate the complexity of how the narrative is pieced together from the various records, documents and transcripts, I don’t think it’s an effective way to realistically portray how people would speak and write in those situations – or to be effective in conveying emotion and allowing the reader to connect fully to the characters. I also think the audio format exacerbated that issue rather than mitigating it, even though it gave human voices to the text.


I’m going to give it 3.5 stars, which is more than I thought it would be when I was only a couple of hours in. But I’m not invested enough to carry on with the rest of the series.


Looking back to my original review, it turns out it was in September 2019, so a bit more recent than I thought.


Here’s what I thought the first time around:


“This week, I also read Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, yet another book that was recommended by Alyson and Kales of the Novel Predictions podcast (though not one they are reviewing on the show).

It tells the story of two teenagers who are caught up in life-changing events when their colony is destroyed by a surprise attack and they have to flee with thousands of others on a damaged spaceship, with the attacking vessel in pursuit. What makes it stand out is that it’s compiled of various documents, from online chats to transcripts of surveillance footage, to official memos, to the ravings of a deteriorating AI. Visually and conceptually, it’s a stunning and impressive piece of fiction.

But all the text speak and the offensive teenage-boy banter gets a bit wearing and the format makes it quite a difficult book to read – physically. I chose Dorian as my favourite character early on, purely because he types in complete sentences with proper punctuation!

The authors pack in all the possible tropes, though – space battles, enemy pursuit of a damaged ship, zombies in an enclosed space, a rogue AI, conspiracy and lies from those in authority – you name it, and it’s in there.

There’s apparently a well-reviewed audio version but I have no idea how this could be done in audio format, given the visual nature of the text.

The ending was excellent, with several very satisfying reveals I didn’t see coming. However, I don’t think I’m going to continue with the other two books in the series. This one pretty much works as a standalone story and the effort of getting through it doesn’t make me want to repeat the experience.”


So, a reasonably similar reaction – though, this time through, the character of Dorian didn’t even register enough for me to remember who he was, so that’s an interesting difference, presumably because of listening to the book rather than reading a physical copy.


And that’s it for this episode of Reviews Revisited. Many thanks to Cambo for our theme music. And thank you so much for listening. If you like the show, please rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts.


And if you have any comments, or if you want to tell me about a time you revisited some media, and whether or not you still loved it afterwards, you can email me at I’d love to hear from you.


Lastly, please join us for the next main episode of Will You Still Love It Tomorrow in two weeks to hear what happens when Dave gets together with some choir friends to watch Gremlins. I’m not going to be there, so it’ll be interesting to find out how that goes!


Bye for now!


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