The Illuminae cover, with explosions in the background and the words: First, survive. Then tell the truth.

I knew I had to critique this bestselling book by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (K&K) when I saw that the first quote in the sales blurb was “A truly beautiful novel that redefines the form.” Oh, it does, does it? I can’t wait to see what kind of redefinition this is. If you can’t wait either, you can follow along with Amazon’s Look Inside feature.

Don’t worry, we won’t be waiting long.

Keep Narration in Character

The first part of the novel we see is this.

An email header with a barcode and a planet image background. Marked for Executive Director Frobisher, from Ghost ID with a long string of numbers, and the subject is Alexander dossier. Round buttons with heavy 3D lighting line the bottom.

That is an email header. So redefining the form apparently means epistolary narration. I guess I need to write letters to the authors of a dozen other novels I’ve read telling them that they redefined the form before it was redefined. I don’t think Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, will get his, but maybe if I redefine the form of my letter, I’ll have a chance.

In my recent article on how to make your craft pretentious, I mentioned the necessity of “innovating,” yet it did not occur to me that you can do normal things and simply pretend you did something different. But I’m not accusing K&K of being pretentious. They didn’t choose that quote; their publisher did.

Also, look at the adorable Web 2.0 buttons in that email header! In web design, the Web 2.0 era was when everyone was super proud of themselves for making flat elements on the screen look like physical 3D objects – an effect called skeuomorphism. Also, everything had rounded corners. The trend started somewhere around the turn of the millennium, and by the time the aughts ended, everyone was so sick of it that making everything look as flat as possible became the new fad.

Illuminae came out in 2015, and this is supposed to be a futuristic email. Oh dear.

Alright, I’ve had my fun with this email header. Let’s look at the text, starting with the first sentence.

So here’s the file that almost killed me, Director.

Not bad at all. It’s easy to understand, it has a source of tension, and the idea of a file almost killing someone is intriguing. Four out of five stars.

I won’t bore you with the tally of databases plundered, light-years jumped, or cute, sniffling orphans created in its compilation—our fee already reflects Level Of Difficulty. But this dirt is out there, if you know where to look. Seems your cleanup crews weren’t quite as thorough as you’d like, and your little corporate war isn’t quite as secret as you’d hoped.

Argh, not only is this just epistolary narration, but it’s not even good epistolary narration! Since the narrator mentions “our fee,” that means this is someone writing to their client in an unprofessional, condescending, and even hostile manner. And since the fee is mentioned in present tense rather than past tense, that suggests this contractor has done all the dangerous work but hasn’t been paid yet. That’s definitely the best time to give your client the finger; they will totally pay you after that.

Epistolary narration needs to be thought through like dialogue. Keep in mind who is speaking, what their motivation is, and who they are speaking to.

As an opening paragraph, it also suffers from stuffing in too many ideas, particularly in the subject sentence. We’re just sorting out what kind of world this is, and we’re given databases, light-years, orphans, cleanup crews, and a secret corporate war. K&K should have slowed down a bit and just built intrigue around this secret corporate war without trying to hint at lots of different events.

You’ll find all intel we could unearth concerning the Kerenza disaster compiled here in hard copy. Where possible, scans of original documentation are included. Fun Times commence with the destruction of the Kerenza colony (one year ago today) and proceed chronologically through events on battlecarrier Alexander and science vessel Hypatia as best as we can reconstruct them.

Moving on immediately from the brief mention of a secret corporate war, we have three proper names we probably won’t remember, which represent yet more underdeveloped events. At least K&K tell us the “Kerenza disaster” is specifically the destruction of a colony.

On the plus side, the tone is almost appropriate for a professional email. The exception is the playfully capitalized “Fun Times,” which is especially weird in this context.

Since the narrator mentions scans of original documentation, that suggests this novel has some pictures and perhaps a variety of epistolary formats. I’m all for that; I just hope some of it is convincing.

All visual and audio data are included in original form, along with written transcripts. All typographical and graphical anomalies are present in the original files. Commentary from my team is marked by paper clip icons.

Paper clip icons? Like Microsoft’s Clippy? Lol. We have plenty of programs that allow commenting on text, and they do not need special icons to visually mark them, nor do they need to explain what those icons mean up front. I do like the line about anomalies being present in the original files, though. It’s intriguing, and, what’s more, that is actually something you’d need to tell a client.

Some written materials were censored by the UTA and had to be reconstructed by our commtechs, though profanity remains censored as per your instruction. Sure, the story kicks off with the deaths of thousands of people, but god forbid there be cussing in it, right?

The Illuminae Group

The Illuminae Group tip #4 for getting paid: mock your client’s instructions. It will go over very well, we promise.

Immediately after this sign off, there’s a quote.

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Orwell

Is this meant to be part of the email? I don’t know, but this Illuminae Group doesn’t strike me as the revolutionary type. So I don’t know why they would use it or how it applies to them.

Altogether, this leaves me wondering if K&K would have been much better off with The Illuminae Group being a different type of entity. Maybe this document could be used to blackmail the corporation by threatening to reveal their secrets – though since that reduces the threat of the corporation, its purpose should probably be left to the end of the book.

Because it’s explaining the epistolary premise, this teaser doesn’t feel as pointless as most do. Whether it actually needed to explain anything has yet to be seen. As a tactic for hooking readers, it’s a bit meh. There are events to be intrigued about, but they aren’t written in a particularly intriguing way.

Finally, it looks like a file did not almost kill the narrator. They were almost killed gathering the information to create the file. I’m going to have to deduct a star from that four-star opening sentence for being misleading.

I wasn’t going to include any more images, but I just have to. Just look at the header image for chapter one.

A chapter illustration with overlapping icons and text bubbles.

The rounded corners, the heavy drop shadows, the 3D logo, and let’s not forget our friend Clippy. I have seen the future, and it looks just like 20 years ago.

Since this image has a lot of text, let me list its contents for anyone who’s having trouble reading it.

  • In the background is a pair of wings on either side of a sphere, with the words “Alexander-78V” over it, all with a 3D effect.
  • Under that is unembellished text in a narrow font that reads “Ministry of the Interior, United Terran Navy, Alexander Fleet.”
  • Layered on top of everything else is a box with rounded corners, a heavy drop shadow, and lots of shading. It has a paper clip on a fancy background in the upper left.
  • The box reads “BRIEFING NOTE: The following are extracts from debriefing interviews with the subjects of this dossier, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason. The interviews were conducted shortly after the evacuation of Kerenza.”

I love how unnecessary Clippy is. The text from The Illuminae Group is in a separate box, it’s labeled with “briefing note,” and it discusses the dossier itself. We can figure out what that is without Clippy’s help. But hey, being an unnecessary intrusion means that Clippy is staying in character.

Kady and Ezra must be the main characters. But if the entire dossier focuses on them, why weren’t they mentioned in the teaser? It suggests The Illuminae Group has gathered a wide variety of information from many sources. But since they do not give a crap about their clients, I suppose revealing last minute that most of their info comes from only two eyewitnesses is also in character for them. I do not recommend hiring The Illuminae Group.

Time and Place Are Pretty Important

Chapter one is an interview transcript. Let’s get started on it.

Interviewer: Tell me about yesterday.

Kady Grant: I was in class when it started. This is going to sound stupid, but I broke up with my boyfriend that morning, and he was right there on the other side of the room. I’m staring out the window and coming up with all the things I should say to the jerk, when these ships fly right overhead and all the windows start shaking.

Unsurprisingly, this interviewer is bad at their job. Sure, sometimes it makes sense to ask vague and open-ended questions like that, but not when you want a detailed beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the interviewer might say, “Walk me through what happened yesterday. When did you first notice something was wrong?” If you’ll be writing a lot of interviews as part of your story, you can read up on how to interview someone for various purposes, like market research or journalism.

Luckily for this interviewer, Kady reads their mind and starts at the beginning. Then, she immediately decides to tell the interviewer about breaking up with her boyfriend, supposedly to explain why she was looking out a window. Kady, you can look out windows if you want; you don’t need to justify it.

When a storyteller does something different, the big question is whether there’s a reason what they’re doing hasn’t been done more often. The reason most novels aren’t epistolary is that it’s very restrictive. This is also why epistolary novels usually lean on formats that are more flexible, such as journal entries or letters. K&K naturally want to develop their character relationships, but they chose a format where characters would be reluctant to share intimate details.

On the plus side, when it comes to the plot, we’re on a roll. The action has already started, and we know it’ll only get more exciting from here.

Interviewer: Did you know something was up?

Kady Grant: No. You don’t jump straight to an invasion. The Kerenza settlement wasn’t exactly legal, but we still got traffic around the mine and refinery. I figured it was an ore carrier coming in too low and went back to plotting my idiot ex’s downfall.

The interviewer continues to be a top-notch professional. Kady makes a disorienting change to second person, but then offers some nice details. I like that this settlement is illegal. It adds conflict to the setting and illustrates how much corporations are getting away with. Anyone living at such a settlement could be exploited by the corporation they work for without any government to intervene, and only an unjust economic system would lead to people taking a risk like that.

Interviewer: When did you become aware of the invasion?

Kady Grant: That would be when all the sirens started screaming. Some bright spark who’s probably dead now sounded the spaceport alarms. The Defiant—that was our WUC protection ship—had transmitted an alert to let us know unfriendly people with big guns had arrived, and—

Interviewer: How do you know the Defiant transmitted a warning?

Kady Grant: I’m good with computers. I wanted to know what was going on at the port, so I took a look.

The story has become very disjointed:

  • The interviewer asks when Kady knew about the invasion, and she just answers “when all the sirens started screaming.” But when is that? Five minutes later? Five hours later? Is she still in class or is she somewhere else?
  • We learn the Defiant is a WUC protection ship, but we don’t know what a WUC protection ship is.
  • The ship transmits an alert to “let us know about unfriendly people,” but by the way the interviewer responds, Kady was not supposed to know about this alert. What is the point of an alert if people aren’t supposed to receive it?
  • Then, she says she knew about it because she’s “good with computers.” Did she just do a magical hackathon? And if so, did she do this in five minutes during class or in five hours after class?

If this had been written with a different narrative premise, many of these questions would be answered. Instead, time and space are nebulous, making it difficult to stay immersed in the events that are unfolding. It’s not impossible to prevent this issue in an interview format, but it would take more time and care than K&K seem to be putting in.

Interviewer: You evacuated at that stage?

Kady Grant: You make it sound way more organized than it was.

Interviewer: How was it?

Kady Grant: All kittens and rainbows. Apart from the screaming and explosions.

Now there’s even screaming and explosions, and Kady’s environment is still extremely amorphous. Assuming Kady is serious, she sounds surprisingly flippant for someone who went through a massacre the day before.

Interviewer: How did you make it out?

Kady Grant: I’m a lateral thinker.

Interviewer: Meaning you used your comput—

Kady Grant: Meaning I broke open a window.

Interviewer: Oh.

I’m guessing these kinds of jokes are why K&K went for an interview format. But the interviewer’s lines are so sloppy that the setup feels contrived. Since the interviewer hasn’t asked where Kady is, she must still be in the classroom, and the interviewer is supposed to have read that from her mind. But if the interviewer knows she’s in a classroom full of screaming and explosions, why would they think she used her computer to get out?

The interviewer doesn’t feel like a person at all, just a convenient dispenser of whatever lines K&K feel like writing. I can’t even say the interviewer exists to set up whatever Kady says, because that suggests the interviewer is reliably doing that.

Kady Grant: I had a truck in the parking lot. I borrowed my mom’s because I didn’t want to have to take the tube home with him. Having the truck there saved my life. I saw one of my teachers in the lot, and this chunk of metal came screaming in from the sky, and . . .

Interviewer: Miss Grant?

We finally get back to an actual place, and it gives us at least some idea of the time. Kady also has trouble describing the death of a teacher, so maybe she hasn’t been dancing on everyone’s graves after all.

However, Kady does expect the interviewer to know that “him” is the ex-boyfriend she briefly mentioned at the very start of this interview. Of course, she’s mostly right, since this interviewer is only the lifeless puppet of a multiconscious, omniscient presence who controls her every waking moment. I’m talking about K&K, of course.

Less Immersion Means Less Tension

Kady Grant: I had this moment when I thought I’d left the keys in my desk, and I pulled apart my bag and threw stuff everywhere—I guess I knew I wouldn’t need any of it again, isn’t that weird? But I found the keys at the bottom and jumped in, and just as I start the engine, I look across and he’s standing right there, staring at me. I swear—

First, I just want you to imagine you’ve escaped from the stampede in your classroom and made it out onto the parking lot. You spot a teacher you know, only to watch them get crushed by falling debris from an explosion nearby. You race to the truck you miraculously drove to school today; it’s your only means of survival. But as you get to it, you realize with horror that you don’t have your keys – you left them in the classroom. Desperate to prove yourself wrong, you empty the bag you’re carrying, throwing everything onto the pavement. And, lo and behold, your keys are at the bottom! You want to kiss them, but there’s no time for that; you frantically unlock your truck and get in.

Next, compare that experience to how Kady describes it.

My telling of these events was over-summarized, which means it is less immersive than a standard scene. Even so, it is still significantly more immersive and tense than Kady’s retelling. That’s what K&K are losing by telling this story as an interview.

That doesn’t mean this style doesn’t have any charm, but even the fun lines have to compete with how disjointed it is. For instance, I want to like this anecdote about Kady knowing she’d never need the things in her bag. But when I first read it, I was thinking of the bag as her purse. Wouldn’t she still want the things in her purse in an emergency? Now I’m guessing it’s a book bag, and she was getting rid of school materials. That fits much better. If events were told in real time, the bag probably would have been better described.

I’m also willing to bet that K&K would have no problem inserting quips if this was told in first person without the epistolary format. In fact, one of K&K’s biggest weaknesses seems to be that they are unable to change their style when it’s called for. They can’t convincingly write a professional email or professional interviewer because they are always casual and quippy.

Unsurprisingly, the interviewer does not ask who “he” is. Instead, we have a convenient interruption that serves the same purpose.

Interviewer: Hold on, the survivor list is refreshing. What was the name you were after?

Kady Grant: Ezra Mason.

Interviewer: We have him. He’s on the Alexander.

Kady Grant: [Inaudible.]

The inaudible line is interesting; it allows the reader to fill in the blank. Since Kady and Ezra are exes who probably have conflicting feelings about each other, I think it’s a good choice.

Also a good choice is switching to Ezra right here, and picking up almost where the narration left off.

Interviewer: Are you okay to continue, Mr. Mason?

Ezra Mason: I’m all right. My shoulder hurts.

Interviewer: I’ll have an orderly bring you some more meds. You were saying about your escape from the school?

Ezra Mason: Never seen anything like it. Just this crush of people and screaming. Teachers. Students. I mean, we knew each other. Colony that isolated, everyone pretty much knows everyone. But it was like they all just lost it. I remember getting pushed along in the mob and wondering why the hallway was soft under my boots. And then I realized what I was walking on.

Ezra gives a much more detailed description of the chaos in the school. The note about what he was walking on is very evocative, though it makes me wonder if that was a person he should have tried to help.

While this is better than the previous flippant description of the stampede, we really needed this from Kady, not Ezra. If you have multiple viewpoints that overlap in some way, whether they are covering the same time or visiting the same place, put your details in the first time around. That’s when it’s still new. Plus, in this case, we know that Ezra will make it to the parking lot, reducing the tension here. If it had been Kady, we wouldn’t know how she was going to get out of it.

Ezra tells the interviewer he got out because he’s a big guy, and then the interview moves on from the school.

Interviewer: Where did you go after the first missile strike?

Ezra Mason: Everyone was headed for the tube station, but I figured a tin can in an underground ice tunnel was the last place you’d want to be with bombs going off. So—

Interviewer: Wait, you people had a subway system? I thought this settlement was illegal?

Ezra Mason: Chum, the Kerenza mine operated undetected for twenty years. Whole families lived there. You know how far from the Core we are, right?

Interviewer: Maybe further than you might think . . .

Ezra Mason: . . . What the hell’s that supposed to mean?

Interviewer: Nothing. I’m sorry.

The interviewer has grown a personality! Surprising no one, it is an unprofessional and hostile personality. There’s just something in the water in Illuminae World; no one can both have a personality and get along with other people.

Since this document has a retro navy header, maybe the interviewer is part of the space navy. I think it’s great to establish some political tension through interpersonal interaction, but if not carefully done, it can just make the narration feel too complex or confusing. Since it’s hard to imagine what dig the interviewer could be making with this comment, it’s more head scratching than intriguing.

Also, despite the dystopian feel of the setting so far, we still get the wish fulfillment of believing that a colony would get important public infrastructure after only 20 years of operating. Since it’s a mining colony, maybe a subway was cheaper because the mining tunnels were repurposed. It’s also strange that Ezra feels the need to specify that families lived in the colony immediately after describing a school large enough for a stampede.

Interviewer: You were saying about the subway?

Ezra Mason: Yeah . . . Right. Basically I didn’t wanna risk it down there, so I lit out through the fire escape. Doubled back into the parking lot. Which might not have been the best plan, since I didn’t have wheels. And I’m looking around, and the sky is raining fire and I’m still freezing because the windchill on Kerenza could hit forty below on a bad day. And there she was.

Interviewer: Who?

Ezra Mason: My ex-girlfriend. Who’d dumped me maybe three hours before. So that was . . . awkward.

Just like Kady, Ezra decides to throw in “her” instead of saying “my ex-girlfriend” like people actually do when they are talking to someone they don’t know. At least this time the interviewer asks who it is. Maybe they’ve already interviewed Kady and they’re fed up at this point. Or maybe this is a different interviewer; that would explain the extra personality.

I’m trying to guess whether K&K split Kady and Ezra between them. Collaborators often want to keep the style consistent, and that’s easier if one person writes the full first draft and the next person revises it. But if the narrating character changes, it’s actually an advantage to split characters between writers so their voices sound different. That doesn’t mean you don’t want some consistency in the tone and style of the piece, but variation is good too.

So far, the style is similar enough between Kady and Ezra that their narration was probably drafted by the same person. They have similar word choice, quips, and changes in tense. Since this book probably uses different epistolary formats, perhaps K&K split it that way.

Skipping forward, we can see another way that K&K are using their format for jokes. First, let’s look at Kady’s retelling of when they head out in the truck together.

Kady Grant: Okay. Fine. We took the main arterial, and Ezra turned on the radio. For a second I thought the idiot was looking for the right soundtrack or something, but there was an emergency broadcast up. They were telling us to get to the spaceport, and our research fleet was going to send down shuttles to ferry us all up to orbit.

Immediately after this is a scene break, and we move back to Ezra’s interview.

Interviewer: So you turned for the spaceport?

Ezra Mason: Yeah. I turned on the radio to maybe find us some getaway music, but there was an emergency broadcast telling everyone to hit the port for evacuation. So that’s what we tried to do. But there were cars everywhere, and some truck had overturned on the strip. Kady nearly flipped us, and when I offered to drive, she . . . well, she called me a very bad word.

This is a great use of multiple viewpoints, as long as the overlap between viewpoints is managed well and doesn’t feel repetitive and boring. However, it doesn’t require this interview format; K&K could have done this with a more standard first-person premise. A first-person narrator retelling previous events can also trail off and vaguely describe a “very bad word” – they don’t have to tell everything in real time.

And as the chapter goes on, events only get more dramatic, and the lost opportunity for immersion and tension becomes greater. Take this excerpt.

Ezra Mason: I don’t know how long I was unconscious for. I came to and thought the sky was covered in spiderwebs. And then I realize I’m looking through the smashed windshield and we’re buried under half a building. The truck is scrapped, Kady’s next to me and there’s blood all over her face, and I couldn’t find a pulse. So I dragged her out of the wreckage and started to give her mouth-to-mouth and that’s when she slugged me, Your Honor.

This should be a dramatic and heartfelt moment. It’s not, because it goes by so fast. There’s no time for the idea that Kady might be dead to sink in or for Ezra to react emotionally. For some readers, being spared the most emotionally intense parts of the story in exchange for a few more jokes might be a good tradeoff, but K&K should have the option to make any part of the story tense, heartfelt, or light as they desire. Instead, the light and incredibly distant style doesn’t change, and the narration almost feels monotonous as a result.

Invest Ahead for Emotion Later

From a bird’s-eye view, the first chapter of Illuminae has a good arc: Kady and Ezra are in a colony that’s being bombed, and they have to make it to the evacuation site intact. With so much action in the first chapter, even distant action, the question is how K&K are going to maintain enough tension after this arc is resolved.

They have a hook for Kady and a hook for Ezra. Kady’s is given first.

Interviewer: You’ve been very helpful. Did you see whether any missiles hit the refinery?

Kady Grant: I don’t think so, just the black cloud. They wouldn’t blow it up, though, would they? I mean, if BeiTech wanted the colony gone, they’d have just ratted to the UTA about it. They obviously wanted the hermium we were mining for themselves. They’d hardly destroy the only way they had to process it.

Interviewer: We can’t speculate yet on what their aim was.

Kady Grant: I guess if they catch up with us, we can ask them before they blow us to pieces.

Kady implies that the evil corporation that attacked the colony is now after the evacuation ship she and her interviewer are on. That would be a good hook for the next chapter, but the way it’s delivered is weakening it. How close is the pursuing ship? What are the chances of the evacuation ship escaping? And are they sure this corporation wants to go to the trouble of hunting down evacuees? “I guess if they catch up with us” doesn’t establish what’s happening clearly enough.

As for Ezra, the narration establishes a number of times that he’s looking for his father.

Interviewer: That’s fine, Mr. Mason.

Ezra Mason: Mr. Mason is my dad. And you still won’t tell me why I can’t see him.

Interviewer: We need you properly debriefed before you have any civilian contact, Mr. Mason. I mean .. . Ezra.

Ezra Mason: “Civilian contact.” Wow. He’s my father, chum. You guys still have fathers, right? Or does everyone in the great United Terran Authority get grown in a vat nowadays?

However, his father isn’t really described. Ezra briefly mentions “my dad is all I have left” and Kady mentions his dad is a big guy who works at the refinery, but that’s all we know.

Then, this is the ending hook for the chapter.

Interviewer: We’ve had another update to the casualty lists. I’m afraid I have some news about your father.

This falls flat, because readers don’t have enough reason to care about Ezra’s father. We know that Ezra cares a great deal about his father, but simply knowing how a character feels doesn’t make the audience feel it. We have to care about Ezra’s father as a person or value his relationship with Ezra. That requires more information about the father than we have.

If Ezra’s father is important to the rest of the book, then making him show up in the first chapter might have been a good move. Perhaps he’s just dropped Ezra off at school, and he turns right back around to find Ezra after the sirens go off. Later, during the chaos, he could be separated from Ezra and Kady.

However, K&K didn’t even need to go that far. Everything in the chapter is summarized anyway, so there isn’t much difference between the father being present during the action and Ezra dropping a little exposition about him. Plus, K&K have been pretty clever about using the interview format to work in information. For example, look at the above excerpt where Kady muses about the motives of BeiTech.

Given that, I think K&K could have done more to build attachment to Ezra’s father without going out of their way. They wouldn’t need lots of attachment; readers shouldn’t get upset here, just feel a little more pang. A little investment goes a long way.

Examine the Tradeoffs of Your Choices

Altogether, K&K have geared their story up fast, using multiple methods of entertaining and enticing readers:

  • The story opens with the main characters facing a dire threat.
  • The main characters have a prominent relationship arc with a lot of antagonistic chemistry.
  • The narration is filled with jokes.
  • The immediate threat is resolved and the story moves on to the next one, providing some satisfaction and keeping the problems fresh.

However, while the epistolary format has given them opportunities for jokes, I don’t think it’s providing nearly as much value as it’s taking away. Every emotion other than humor has been dimmed, and immersion is quite low. Both the readers who like tense action and the ones who love deep characterization are losing out here.

Plus, so far K&K also haven’t been very skilled at making their epistolary narration feel credible, which takes away much of the value it can offer. Without credibility, an epistolary premise is just an excuse for exposition.

Because of its neglect of real-time narration, I declare this summary writing. It’s not without some entertainment, but it’s still a dim reflection of what it could have been.

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