Genre: YA Sci-fi / Action Thriller
It’s here! 😀 It’s here! 😀 It’s here! 😀 It’s here! 😀 It’s here! 😀 It’s here! 😀 It’s here! Ahem.
*Tries to adopt serious book critiquing face. Grins like an idiot.*
So. For those who’ve been stuck in deep space with their comms down for the past year, The Illuminae Files is *the* big thing happening in YA right now. Illuminae, the first book in the series, gathered an impressive haul of awards and nominations, including (but not limited to) the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the 2016 ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children and the 2016 Gold Inky Award. It’s also recently been shortlisted for the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in the YA category. So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
And book two just landed.
If you haven’t read Illuminae, you should exit this review NOW and do that because a) it’s awesome and b) it’s impossible to discuss Gemina without minor Illuminae spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Bearing in mind what I *just said* about Illuminae spoilers, Gemina picks up where Illuminae left off: the research ship Hypatia is ferrying refugees (including our beloved heroes, Kady Grant, Ezra Mason and everyone’s favourite sociopathic AI, AIDAN) from the BeiTech attack on Kerenza to the Heimdall Way Point. But if the Hypatia reaches Heimdall, you can bet its passengers will spread the word that BeiTech is responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians. And that would be very bad for business.
So BeiTech sends an Audit Team, led by Travis ‘Cerberus’ Falk (a charming nutball if there ever was one) to seize command of Heimdall during Terra Day celebrations (when the station is down to skeleton staff) and reconfigure the wormhole at Heimdall’s heart to allow a fully automated assault fleet to jump to the Kerenza System and obliterate the Hypatia.
What the Audit Team haven’t counted on is the Heimdall Commander’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Hanna Donnelly, being a combat expert and military strategy geek who’s skulking around in Heimdall’s underbelly waiting for her drug dealer instead of joining the Terra Day celebrations when the Audit Team takes over. They also haven’t counted on her drug dealer/ juvenile felon/Russian gangster/all-round badarse, Niklas Malikov and his fifteen-year-old cousin and hacking wunderkind Ella ‘Pauchok’ Malikova evading capture. Nor are they aware of the psychoactive soul-sucking space snakes soon to be slithering through Heimdall’s ventilation system. Or the second automated assault fleet en route to destroy Heimdall once their mission is complete. Or the record company that’s taken ‘viral marketing’ to a whole new level by infecting the Heimdall PA system so that a highly irritating, highly addictive pop song plays on continuous loop in the lifts. Or the fact that the wormhole is experiencing some, uh, technical glitches.
Let the fun begin.
I was nervous going into Gemina. Illuminae left me utterly starstruck (read gushing review here). I hadn’t read anything quite like it before, so as well as being clever and funny and poignant, it felt very novel. I knew that Gemina, being the second book in the series, would likely be more familiar and that I should adjust my expectations accordingly. Even still, it took a good two days after it hit my letterbox for me to calm down enough to read it.
Scanning the blurb, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Kady, Ez and AIDAN taking a backseat in this one. I love all three characters and was eager to catch up with them again. BUT Hanna, Nik and Ella soon proved equally awesome. Hanna can be a real b**** when the mood takes her, but it’s largely a defence mechanism. She’s whip-smart, level-headed, a natural-born deviant and has a badarse ancient Greek warrior-y ‘I will do whatever is necessary’ attitude. If you put her in a fight to the death with Katniss Everdeen, she’d win without breaking a sweat. Nik’s also fun. Like Ez, he thinks with his, uh, heart rather than his head and he’s hopelessly besotted with Hanna, despite the fact that she already has an oh-so-dreamy beau. But, being a tattooed member of the House of Knives drug gang, he’s somewhat rougher and tougher than Ez. However, it’s Ella who takes out MVP. Her screen name, Pauchock, means ‘little spider’ because, as a master hacker, she’s all up in Heimdall’s web. Illness left her paralysed from the waist down when she was thirteen, so her drug lord dad bought her the best computer money could buy. She calls it Anansi and it’s built around her medi-chair, giving her unlimited digital mobility. You need to set up a pirate chat network, override a system or create a diversion? She’s your gal. She’s got a wicked sense of humour, a gutter mouth and is Heimdall’s only hope for getting word to the Hypatia that trouble’s on its way.
I was a tad disappointed that Kady and Ezra don’t have much of a role in Gemina (they’re still around, but don’t make an appearance until late in the game), but I would have been devastated if AIDAN didn’t get a good chunk of page time. Kaufman and Kristoff must have realised that fans would REVOLT EN MASSE if there were no AIDAN (that, or they just have waaaaay too much fun writing …it? (Have we reached a consensus on the appropriate pronoun for a machine that potentially has a soul?? ‘It’ feels cold.) So AIDAN takes over describing the more violent camera footage when the regular analyst flat out refuses to watch any more deaths by lanima (the aforementioned soul-sucking space snakes that put dementors to shame). AIDAN remains one of my all-time favourite characters, and it’s still the sociopathic poet we grew to know and love in Illuminae, and who says things like:
IT MAY COMFORT YOU TO KNOW THAT YOUR DEATH, WHILE ASTONISHINGLY VIOLENT, WILL LIKELY BE MERCIFULLY SWIFT.
However, its philosophising and poetics don’t pack quite the same punch when it isn’t the one doing the murdering.
Compared to Illuminae, Gemina takes a little while to warm up, as in no one blows up a planet within the first twenty pages, but once it gets going, it’s 600+ pages of full-throttle action. The most common criticism reviewers seem to have of Illuminae is that the plot isn’t super original, and, having binge-watched Battlestar Galactica in the year since I read it, I’m inclined to agree. The same criticism holds for Gemina. The setup, in which an entire community is taken hostage during a celebration when everyone’s conveniently gathered in the same spot, except for a motley crew of diversely-skilled teenagers who launch a counter attack? Um, yep, so showing my age here but John Marsden called and wants his premise back. Side note: if you haven’t read the Tomorrow series a) why the frak not? and b) make it a priority, chums. Side, side note: it probs wasn’t totally original when JM did it either, so I’m not judging too harshly. Also, part of the fun of The Illuminae Files is that they do reference a bunch of other stuff (see my Illuminae review). That said, I did find Gemina somewhat more predictable than Illuminae. Kaufman and Kristoff still make regular plays at misdirection, but this time round I was expecting them, and once they revealed what Gemina is, I could pretty well guess how the story was going to play out. But that’s not to say it wasn’t still highly entertaining. I’d liken it to being on a super fun, high-speed roller coaster where you can glimpse the twists and turns ahead.
But here’s the thing: The Illuminae Files could have no plot at all, and it’d still make for great reading because the real star of the series (aside from the characters) is the narrative style. In Gemina, we get the same chat and radio transcripts, emails, camera footage analyses, briefing notes, etc., along with a few new additions, most notably pages from Hanna’s journal. H is something of an artist, and we’re treated to some absolutely gorgeous illustrations, courtesy of artist Marie Lu. In Illuminae, one of the things that hit deep was the photo obit. Kaufman and Kristoff included for the thousands of characters who don’t survive the book. In Gemina, we get a different take on this with an ongoing photographic kill count of the Audit Team. On the one hand, it’s a handy update of how many people are still hunting H, N and E, but it also means the enemy troops aren’t just faceless goons. It’s sobering to see their pictures again and again, and Kaufman and Kristoff also include transcripts of their conversations, which are as funny and human as those of the protags. Not to get all political, but we seem to be increasingly good at demonising those who disagree with us, and it’s good to see a story that is essentially ‘goodies’ vs. ‘baddies’ take pause to consider that murderous asshats are people too.
Overall verdict? Illuminae is an incredibly tough act to follow, and second books are notoriously ‘meh’. (Hands up: Who remembers the disaster that was New Moon when Meyer resorted to leaving whole pages blank?) With that in mind, Kaufman and Kristoff have done a stellar job with Gemina. It’s perhaps not quite as tight as Illuminae, but it’s still galaxies ahead of 99.99% of its competitors (I binge read all 659 pages in 48 hours). And it’s a worthy second book that delivers more of what readers loved in Illuminae: thrilling action, lovable characters, sparky dialogue, innovative narrative techniques, lashings of dark wit and just enough of the heavy stuff.
BRING ON BOOK THREEEEEEE!!
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of Gemina in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up twelve critical issues and thirty advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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