Deconstructing the awesome ‘Illuminae’ with a bloodied pair of pinking sheers and a sharpened spoon

illiminaeSeriously. If Unputdownable and Awesome met and had a book baby, it would be ‘Illuminae‘ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. If you’re wondering whether to read it, just take this as a fist-pumpingly enthusiastic, big-brass-band in the background YES!

And go away now and read.

However if, like me, you now want to dissect the story structure and see what made it mind-blowing, then read on my friend.

I think the key areas where ‘Illuminae’ shines are:

  1. Story structure cranking the tension.
  2. Plotty plot plot + plot + more plot
  3. Challenging narrative structure
  4. Characters you bleed for.

And that’s not even mentioning how often it made me laugh out loud.

I cried too. My emotional control is about equal to that of a caterpillar, so this isn’t all that unusual, but there is understated beauty in the way ‘Illuminae’ is written.

Story Structure

illuminae fig

My super-rough notes. I thought about making them ordered and pretty, but then they’d lose their character, wouldn’t they?

Here’s a breakdown of the novel and what each stage achieves. Note the real time covered through the stages:

Page 1: summary written after the events, know thousands die in inciting attack, our interest is immediately sparked. The voice is compelling.

5%: Inciting incident invasion recounted, have a firm understanding of our two main characters, Kady and Ezra. Kady starts hacking attempts.

10%: 6 months since inciting incident. AIDAN has already killed the 2,000+ people on the Copernicus and the desperate cover-up has begun.

25%: AIDAN is still down, the pilots who saved the Copernicus refugees have been court-marshaled and shot. Jimmy went on a mission and never came back, compelling Ezra to install the chip Kady needs to hack the Alexander. And we therefore learn the truth of the sickness on the Copernicus. Was AIDAN doing the right thing, but in the wrong way?

30%: A week has been covered in the previous 20%. We learn how things are with the Copernicus survivors in Hangar Bay 4, and what happened to Jimmy. If that’s not bad enough, the countdown to the dreadnought Lincoln intercepting them begins. And they still can’t get away fast enough because they’re too scared to power AIDAN up again lest he irradiate anyone else.

40%: 38 hours covered in previous 10%. Yeah! Byron thinks up his Logic Bomb to attack the Lincoln’s computer at this point. We need this, because we’ve just learned that the Hypatia captain got shot as Byron was forcefully recruited, Ezra is pissed with Kady for hacking where she shouldn’t have, and Kady’s mum was on the Copernicus (I’d been dreading finding out what was up with her for ages). Oh, and there’s only 32 hours before the Lincoln’s going to blow them all up. So, yeah, we needed something good.

50%: 33 hours covered in last 10%. GAME CHANGE, YOU POOR READER! Wow. They fight off the Lincoln, AIDAN even helps even though it’s acting weird. But then this book morphs into something so much bigger than it was, when AIDAN lets the afflicted out of their quarantine and leads them to the bridge to assassinate the captain. For the moment we stop counting down to the Lincoln. Instead, we start receiving regular updates on how many are dead on the Alexander and what percentage of those on board are afflicted with the Phobos disease. These updates continue regularly until the 86% mark. Which is great – it keeps the tension high without having to find awkward ways to make characters mention these stats. Buckle up now, people, things get messy.

60%: 8 hours covered in last 10%. The acting Captain of the Hypatia has just purged all surviving Alexander pilots into the great black nothing because one showed symptoms of Phobos (you know what? harsh but probably necessary). Kady launches herself across to the Alexander, certain she is the best chance Ezra has to survive.

70%: NOOOO! About 4 hours covered, including Kady finding Jimmy’s body. He suicided as Phobos began to take hold. Does Kady start to understand the Hypatia’s actions better now? I feared something was up for the last 60 pages, but it’s not until this 70% mark that we learn AIDAN lured Kady across by pretending to be Ezra. He tells Kady that Ezra is dead.

75%: 7 hours covered in previous 5%. The plot is moving so quickly now. Kady is still pissed with AIDAN, but she helps save the last healthy people on board the Alexander. Death toll is rising, infection is rising, the countdown to the Lincoln attacking has started again, and just in case that wasn’t enough, we’ve got a countdown to failure of life support too. I am CRYING as Kady secures the safety of the people in the shuttles and tells the Hypatia to leave. She is alone on a ship with 1,000 zombie wannabes and a lunatic AI.

90%: 16 hours covered in previous 15%. We’ve learnt to love AIDAN and its growing relationship with Kady. The Lincoln blows, and Kady and AIDAN have achieved their aim – the Hypatia is safe. But the afflicted are cutting a hole through the wall to get to her, and all those missiles are still incoming…

95%: Maybe 30 minutes? Kady makes it to escape hatch. Not to save herself, but to save the info AIDAN has collected.

Cry cry cry.

And a twist at the end that ties the loose strands of the plot together.

100%: Google when Book 2 comes out. Groan because you have to wait 1 month, 27 days and 11 hours. Here’s the countdown here


Depth of Plot roughly equivalent to Marianas Trench

Imagine it: you’ve just thought up this kick-ass plot. Two teens, planet attacked, have to overcome insane Artificial Intelligence in order to defeat the dreadnought following them. Ooh, ooh, then you add in a Romantic Subplot. Maybe they were going out. Maybe they just broke up. Maybe they end up on different ships. Realise they still love each other, but everything is keeping them apart.

Cool plot, you’d think. Dive right in, this will be super-great.

And it would be. But Kaufman and Kristoff didn’t stop at super-great, they cranked things up to ultra-awesome by adding in a nasty piece of bio-weaponry that turns normal people into psychotic zoms. It’s there for the first half of the book, but at the 50% mark it steps right up and socks you one, square on the jaw. Then it takes over and transforms a perfectly acceptable plot into something you can’t get out of your head.

More importantly, it gives so many more opportunities for the characters to crack and arc, and the reader to cry and shudder and rejoice. It forces humanity and frailty and will into the book. It makes it something special.

Me? I’ve been stopping at Perfectly Acceptable in my manuscripts. ‘Illuminae’ makes me realise I don’t don’t need to settle for that.

Don’t accept Acceptable. Reach for Awesome.


A different way to narrate a book

With the way this book is told, I had to think. I loved that. The book is a collection of the files of The Illuminae. Letters, interview transcripts, memos, emails, reports, transcribed surveillance footage, and AIDAN’s own records.

But it’s not boring. At all. It’s not impersonal. Far from it.

It’s genius.

illuminae shot

One of my favourite pages of the book, for obvious reasons…

Characters that reach inside you and take a hold of your heart

Kady’s arc is incredible. She holds the book. She should. She grows from secretive, self-serving and bitter into someone who sacrifices themselves with a sense of humour and a heap of fear. She is brave, and she is sharp. I love her as a character. She is strong because she has weaknesses, but she pushes past them. Some writers think the hero shouldn’t be weak. This proves why that’s wrong.

Ezra I didn’t feel arced so strongly, but that’s because he was (kind of) only in the first 50% of the book. Other people do use the term ‘chum’ in the book, but I’m still thinking the unorthodox surveillance footage analyst is him. Take that into account, and he has a mighty arc. At the start he risked losing Kady because he was so scared of his mum (and probably wanted to support his dad). By the end… yee ha!

‘Wowwww. You’re really bad at this, chum. Like, if Bad was a sport, you could Bad for your planet.’ Ezra, p35.

AIDAN made me cry. It is my favourite character in this book. Every time its madness caused a ‘human’ thought, it suffered a programming error. It fought to hide what it feared was ‘meat logic’ but in the end it embraced what it had become. AIDAN and Kady became a ‘we’. None of us are are robots (are we?) but who among us hasn’t tried to act the way they think they should at some point, lied about who they really were or what was important to them? AIDAN’s madness leads to humanity, and it was brave enough to face that. To care, to fear and to try for something that defied logic but felt right.


I think that is reaching the heart of why I loved this book so much. This book shows the brutality and senselessness of war. All those dead. Broken families and lost children. People deprived of their right to humanity, made into a dreadful weapon themselves. Check out pages 60-63 for a novel way of not letting your readers ignore numbers.

In the end, who was more human? AIDAN, or the Director?

20 thoughts on “Deconstructing the awesome ‘Illuminae’ with a bloodied pair of pinking sheers and a sharpened spoon

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  4. Just wondering, what was AIDAN’S reason behind releasing the afflicted? I know it was to kill of the command but what was logic behind doing that when more people would be killed?


    • The way I see it, AIDAN sacrificed one ship in the belief it would save the whole of the other. Harsh, but hey – it is a machine. And a sick one at that. We know it wasn’t correct, because Kady saves many people even after the afflicted have been released. But AIDAN figures that out itself, too. That’s my thought anyway. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I agree with you, AIDAN must have came to the conclusion that there was no effective way to get rid of the command without harming anyone else and went on to unleash Phobos. I especially found that part where Kady lectures AIDAN on mindlessly killing people without taking in consideration of miracles the most interesting piece of dialogue in the book.

        P.S. If that movie adaptation of Illuminae does happen, wouldn’t be cool if Benedict Wong took on the role of Byron Zhang 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Illuminae was a fabulous read, I agree.This is one of my all-time favorite book reviews. Genius! The way you plotted the story arc is impressive. Did you read through the book more than once or note things as you read the first time?

    Liked by 1 person

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