A Dash of Salt | The Illuminae Files

A good series is the fine wine of the book world. With each new entry, it ages boldly, elates the spirit, makes you crave more and more until you’re drunk on the quality of what you’ve read.

I would like to say that the Illuminae Files was that—a perfectly aged wine that hit where it needed to and left sweetness behind in its wake. Unfortunately, what I expected to be a bottle opened only once a century turned out to be something that I could get in a box on the bottom shelf of my local gas station any day of the week.

Illuminae opened this series breathtakingly. The characters, the setting, the twists, and the way that the story was told blew me away. It was the first book that I had read by Amie Kauffman and Jay Kristoff. I was impressed. Hooked. So much so that immediately after finishing Illuminae I placed an order for Gemina and Obsidio, the second and third entries in the series. I was looking forward to the continuation of the story and seeing through to the end the strong themes established in Illuminae. The harsh criticism of the military industrial complex and how dangerous mega-corporations can be, critiquing how adults interact with younger generations, how teenagers deal (or don’t deal) with grief, were handled so beautifully in Illuminae that my expectations for Gemina were high.

Then I read Gemina, which was… okay. And then I read Obsidio, which was bad.

It wasn’t for any major plot flaws. It wasn’t because the characters were horribly written. It wasn’t even that the setting was boring—you’re in space, for Christ’s sake. Gemina and Obsidio suffer for one simple reason.

They’re trying to be Illuminae, and they don’t do it nearly as well as Illuminae does Illuminae.

One of the biggest hurdles I believe in place for writers of series is making sure that when you show how you set up certain types of foreshadowing, arcs, and plot twists, is that you don’t go on to repeat the exact same thing in your subsequent books. What made the emotional punches in Illuminae sting were the fact that they were fresh. I didn’t expect them—and for the ones that I did anticipate, the tension was high because I wanted to know whether my hunches were correct or if something totally different was going to come out of left field. There was a newness to what Jay and Amie were writing, and they executed every twist, turn, dip in arc, escalation in plot, with such a perfection that when I got what was essentially the same twists dressed in a different setting and a slightly different but still overly explained science thing in Gemina, I came away from the book liking it, but not overly impressed. We’d seen it already. Next.

And… when I read the exact same twists, dressed in a different setting and different but basically the same characters in Obsidio, I was frustrated.

There was nothing special enough about Gemina or Obsidio to justify the recycling of the same plots, same character arcs, same twists, for three books in a row. There was nothing unique enough about Gemina or Obsidio to justify the fact that all three books contain retconned character deaths that, by the third or fourth time they’ve been read, the emotion and tension that should come with death—something traumatic and wholly irreversible—is just not there. The strongest aspect of the latter two books in this series is the format that the books are written in. That’s not a good sign when the best part of a book is the gimmick on which the book was sold.

I think that Jay Kristoff and Amie Kauffman are talented writers; if they weren’t, Illuminae would not have been as good as it was. Even the flaws that I found with it couldn’t take away the impact that it had on me, both as a reader and a writer, as a fan of science fiction, as someone who loves questionable AI characters and emotional writing. But the mark was so missed on this series it’s almost painful because it is easy to see the intention in the writing—even with such a blatantly mishandled execution.

Final Salt?

Despite how much I truly loathe Obsidio as the conclusion to this series, and in general feel disappointed in how this series was written, I still stand by Illuminae being a must-read book, and I think that if the premise interests you, taking a chance on the series is still worth the read (support a local library to save your wallets.) There are true conceptual gems hidden even within Obsidio’s pages and I think it’s unfortunate that it just rehashes a lot of the same plot turns and character arcs as its previous books, because this trilogy could have been really special.

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