Rebecca’s Favorite Book of 2016: Illuminae

Rebecca Kordesh, Director1dd72c74-dd4f-4789-8d3d-694ba1279a47
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2016 was a big year for me because it was the first year where I was active enough on Goodreads to participate in a reading challenge and to watch as my numbers went up and up and I finally met that 150 books read goal. Goodreads is also nifty because it keeps track of the books you’ve read for you, so now that we’ve hit 2017, I get to go back and look at what I read in 2016 and reminisce.

If I’m totally honest, about half of those 150 books were somewhere between “meh” and “NO!” on the scale of enjoyment, but the other half were a real treat. That’s maybe the advantage to pushing through about three books a week — yeah, you find lemons, but you also find gems. Lots of them.

So many, in fact, that it was quite difficult for me to land on a single book to talk about. So before I go an wax lyrical about Illuminae, I’d like to give a shout out to a few of the other fantastic books/series I was lucky enough to experience in 2016. Here’s to you, The Raven Cycle, so beautiful and pure in your spot on my favorite’s shelf. I love you. And here’s to you, Red Rising trilogy. Thank you for rekindling my husband’s love of books. Cheers to Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, y’all rocked my world. I’ll raise a glass to you, Menagerie, one of the coolest creepy little things I stumbled upon. And a toast for the books I’d already loved that I got to love again in 2016, from the Harry Potter series to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sandman and down to a wide array of Juliet Marillier classics. Annnnnd one final shoutout to the 40ish books that did not make this list but were also fantastic and provided many feelings and great joy to my year.

51puwgixkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_And now, to the main event.

Illuminae. 

Man oh man what a book. It’s difficult to even know where to begin with this because reading Illuminae was such an experience, but I shall try.

First, this is not a traditional book. Rather than straightforward narration, Kaufman and Kristoff tell this story through a series of IM chats, data files, reports on security camera footage, classified military files, and eventually information from the server core of the main AI unit, AIDAN.

While I’m usually impressed by clever forms of narration like this, I don’t often read them because I’m a trandtionalist with books. I like them to be straightforward narration style. But the style of this book could not be more perfectly done. The execution was brilliant, the use of tiny visual details superb, and the lack of straightforward narration did absolutely nothing to take away from the emotional impact of the story. It was a wild, fun, emotional, and intense ride.

Seriously, I was invested within the first 30 pages and I spent this entire experience caught somewhere between laughter and genuine tears. Illuminae is funny, it’s fun, it’s intense, violent, and fast-paced, but it is also deeply philosophical and altogether incredibly emotional. AIDAN, the possibly insane AI of the Battleship Alexander, really takes the cake on this. I simultaneously hated it (you know, ’cause of psychotic AI things) and favored the parts of the book from its perspective because that’s where many of the most poignant moments were delivered, and flawlessly.

The main two characters, Ezra and Kady, are both phenomenal. Kady is everything I ever wanted in a snarky space heroine, and Ezra is just bae. Their backstory and their development throughout the book was incredibly compelling and just absolutely wonderful.

Illuminae was literally everything I could ever have wanted from a book. It was a fantastic escape, a brilliantly imagined alternate reality that somehow felt familiar. It engaged me with characters that were both human and otherwise and got to that part of me that genuinely cares about those characters even while I rationally know they don’t exist. It got me thinking about the big questions without being too heavy-handed about it and without trying to provide any answers. It was one of those books that provides the entertainment you want from leisurely reading while also encouraging you to think about the world you live in and the nature of the things you know.

Illuminae, I adore you.

(I also adore Gemina, the sequel that this blog post would have been about if I’d read Illuminae in 2015 when it was released).

But seriously, hat’s off to Kaufman and Kristoff for this delightfully wonderful thing, and thank you 2016 for bringing Illuminae to me. A+.

Tamora Pierce

Hi Tammy,

Remember that time you laughed at a badger meme I posted? You probably don’t, and I don’t blame you. You probably see a lot of badger memes. But I remember, and I was proud of myself for that for, like, a whole day afterward. Not to get too sappy, but bringing some small amount of joy to someone who had brought me gobs and gobs of it was a really good feeling.

The first book of yours I read was Wolf-Speaker.

I know, I know, it’s a weird place to start: a second book of a second series. I didn’t even have the decency to start at the beginning of the Immortals quartet. I was thrown into a story already begun, meeting a protagonist who had already begun her arc, spending time with characters who had already been introduced and elaborated on.

I regret nothing. Part of this is because of your writing, Tammy. Despite coming in partway through a 4-book arc, starting with Wolf-Speaker just felt like another entry point into the story. You weave in the salient details of past events without belaboring them, hint at larger happenings in the world, and further develop your characters all within the confiens of a single story. Wolf-Speaker doesn’t feel incomplete, though I would also argue that it fits perfectly into its niche in Daine’s timeline.

I also don’t regret my decision at all because being introduced to a protagonist who can communicate with animals, and having her first major interactions be with a wolf pack was the perfect point to enter a story for my 12-year-old self. Regular readers of the BWP blog may recall that I wrote of the Redwall universe that a universe full of talking animals was everything I wanted. I may have to slightly tweak that statement, because even better was the possibility of a universe where animals were still animals — not living in buildings and farming the land, but living as animals do — but some people could talk to them. Rather, some people could talk to them, and they would answer.

From Wolf-Speaker, I finished the Immortals quartet, and then went back to read your works from the beginning. Over time I got to meet all of your heroines, and I am so glad I spent time growing up with all of these women. From bull-headed temperamental Alanna to calm unyielding Kel, to snippy people-averse Tris — it would take too long to describe them all, but suffice it to say, that when I try to determine a single favorite, it’s nearly impossible.*

There are many things I can be thankful for in your writing, Tammy, but the greatest thing is that you showed me unequivocally that women in fantasay could be as real and varied as the women I know from reality. They could show full ranges of emotions, had their own ideas, and made their own decisions. They could be sad, angry, brave, quiet, brash, thoughtful, giddy, and everything in between. Thank you for their stories.

-Louisa

*Nearly. (I’ll give you one guess).

Jennifer Niven

“The thing is, there are good days and bad days. I feel almost guilty saying they aren’t all bad.”

Dear Jennifer Niven,

We’ve actually met once, back in 2015 at NoVa Teen Book Fest — I had an ARC of All The Bright Places with a billion little blue and green post-it flags sticking out of it. I’m not very great at meeting people whose work I admire; I tend to go bright red in the face and start anxiously babbling and word-vomiting whatever runs into my mind first and it doesn’t usually end well. But you were so very kind and sweet, and meeting you was the high point screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-12-23-12-pmof my time at NTBF15, not only because of this meeting and all the talks I heard you give over the course of the day, but because of your book — the very thing that brought me to NTBF15 in the first place.

I picked up that ARC of All the Bright Places in the very start of 2015 and was left in pieces. There I was, 23 years old and recently unemployed, going to therapy every week to recover from an eating disorder while being told that, in addition to the depression I’d suffered from on-and-off for some time, I was also suffering from anxiety along with ADHD. I was a molotov cocktail of emotions, a powder keg about to explode, and I suppose one wouldn’t think that a book like yours, so tragically beautiful and heartbreaking, would be the very thing I needed in that moment.

But it was, because in that moment I needed to feel and scream and rage and bang my head and hands against the wall. Through Finch, I found all that tumult — he was as close to my own swings in temperature as I’d ever found in a character. All those post-it flags, they were probably 90% Finch — they were the moments I recognised in myself in some way, shape, or form. So many authors, especially in the Young Adult writing community, have attacked the topics of mental illness, suicide, loss, and grief…but very few had done it with such elegant ecstasy and subtle passion as you did with this book. And Violet — lovely, lovely Violet — it was through Violet that I found that way to do more than cope with things that ripped me apart. Her story, seemingly so much quieter than Finch’s, was just as powerful, just as helpful.

I didn’t get the chance, I don’t think, to say thank you during that brief meeting with you. That your book, in a way, helped save my life. That Finch and Violet, these broken and flawed human beings, were what I needed in that very moment, and in so many moments after that first read. I can see the marked improvement in my own mental health and ability to recognise my own “temperature fluctuations,” as it were, because I experienced it through them.

You wrote such a bright book that holds a very bright place in my heart. And I can’t say thank you enough for that.

Sincerely,
Madeleine

Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie,

Howdy. You are really awesome.

That’s all, basically.

I could spend several hundred words telling you how freaking amazing The Raven Cycle is and how much I adored The Scorpio Races.

I could write you an essay about how incredibly skilled you are at blending fantasy with reality, at reminding your readers of the magic that already exists in our world.

I could write a whole letter on your use of mythology in The Scorpio Races and how much this religious scholar just ate that up.

I could write you a book about how following you on various social media platforms has taught me that the world is unfair and that the level of talent you have in the variety of areas you have it is just unreal.

I could go on and on and on about why I went and got a raven tattoo after the release of The Raven King (and yes the biggest raven is named Chainsaw).

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But at the end of the day the most important thing for me to say is that I am grateful for you, and all that you do.

Thank you for being really awesome.

Seriously.

Really, thank you.

-Rebecca

Holly Black

Holly,

In March of 2016 I was lucky enough to attend the Nova Teen book festival in Arlington, Virginia, where you were the keynote speaker. I had so much fun basically stalking you from panel to panel, learning about how to write a properly scary story during the Creep panel and sitting in the completely full classroom where you had your one-on-one with participants about writing fairytales. Don’t worry, I live-tweeted the whole experience so if you don’t trust my word on how psyched I was about the whole thing you only need to check your Twitter notifications from that day (I’m sort of sorry about blowing up your feed that way, but kind of really not).

Your keynote is what really got me, though. I had a really freaky moment there while you were talking because I’d been telling my friend Mad earlier that day how I would probably die if you and Neil Gaiman ever collaborated on anything, and lo and behold in your keynote you start talking about Lucifer and a conversation you had with Gaiman about why you write fantasy.

I pretty much died in that moment because not only was it like you’d read my mind but you also managed to combine your thoughts with Gaiman’s (and I think even G.K Chesterton’s which is a whole other thing (OK I’ll dish, I wrote a graduation speech in college based on a G.K. Chesterton quote that you may or may not have used during your keynote (OK you did))) to say what is perhaps the truest and most powerful thing about what fantasy even is. Pardon my paraphrase (I’m sure the direct quote is on Twitter), but you told us all that the power in fantasy is that it deals with reality in a world where the rules are shifted such that the everyday struggles of humanity can be exaggerated and focused on in a way that literary fiction just does not allow. Want to talk about the struggle to belong for teenagers? Write about a changeling. And all that good stuff.

It really got to me not just because it was true, not just because that was exactly why I’d always been drawn to really good fantasy over anything else, but also because your stories have always had that dash of really harsh reality blended in with the fantastic elements of the worlds you create. When I first read Tithe I picked it up because it was sold as a modern fairytale, but I loved it because of how freaking real it was. How even though it was about non-human creatures in an alternate reality it was one of the most familiar and one of the truest stories I’ve ever encountered, and the same can be said of everything you’ve written since.

Tithe itself is really a meta-example of that, since you even went and created a main character who could not lie but who knew how to deceive, and when I was reading that whole series, especially once it got to Ironside, I just kept thinking, “Oh my God Holly Black is Fae. She’s totally mastered the art of telling a story that has elements of untruth but which is actually entirely true.”

I mean basically what I’m trying to say here is you are brilliant. Absolutely brilliant and I love it. I love it all. I also love how your books are like the hard rock of YA and Middle Grade literature. They’ve got so many of the same elements as other books in their genre, but they’ve got this edge to them, this grit that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. Sometimes that is exactly what I need when I pick up a story to get lost in, and I can’t thank you enough for carving out that space and for continuing to create masterpieces within it.

You rock, literally, and I appreciate you.

Thank you now and always,
Rebecca

Melina Marchetta

Dear Melina,

I have stayed awake all night reading a book exactly three times in my life. This is not because I don’t become engrossed in many of the books I read, but rather because I have actual anxiety about the amount of sleep I get. As someone who has been suffering from a particularly ugly kind of insomnia (difficulty falling asleep and the inability to stay asleep for more than 2 hours) since she was eight years old, bedtime is sacred to me. If I’m going to be even halfway functional as a human I need to be in bed for at least ten hours every night, and I do not push that.

So when I tell you that you wrote one of the books that I stayed up all night to read, I need you to understand that this is a huge thing. The only other books that have this distinction are Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, which is my all-time favorite novel and the subject of my undying love and devotion, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I read immediately after its midnight release largely because my brother was going to spoil the ending for me if he finished it first (and also I’m from the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, so that was a major life event for me as well).

Essentially what I’m trying to tell you is that your Lumatere Chronicles really blew my mind. I picked up Finnikin of the Rock during a stage in my life where I had a complicated relationship with YA literature, especially YA Fantasy. I was a graduate student with fairly limited time to read for pleasure so I was drawn to YA Fantasy books because they were shorter and easier reads than their adult counterparts. But I was growing increasingly frustrated because they also lacked a lot of the substance and heart that drew me to most of the fantasy stories that I adored. I was worried I was outgrowing the genre, potentially losing some of my identity as a reader. I was disillusioned with myself and the stories I was consuming. Finnikin of the Rock was my light in that dark time. While I did not read it in one sitting, I did read it in two, and it was the first book in probably years that had me longing for it when I was away from it, that had me thinking about it all day and arranging my work such that I’d have ample time to read it when I got home from classes.

I was so excited about it that I bought copies for my roommates and forced it on my boyfriend at the time (who has since married me, for whatever that’s worth). I immediately purchased both Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn, and I read Froi in one sitting that Saturday and stayed up until 6 am on Sunday to finish Quintana of Charyn.

I then proceeded to re-read the series three times over the next month. They left me deeply satisfied on an emotional level and had my brain firing on all cylinders. Several of my own darker fantasy projects are more than slightly influenced by The Lumatere Chronicles and it is the first series I recommend to anyone who wants to read a good fantasy.

So thank you for restoring my faith in literature and for reminding me what it was like to be an avid reader, to be some consumed by a story that it became the only thing that mattered. You are amazing, truly.

Much love and gratitude,
Rebecca

Jennifer Donnelly

“I tried to be goodly. I tried to be godly. But I got so tired of being ignored. Cry your grief to God. Howl to the heavens. Tear your shirt. Your hair. Your flesh. Gouge out your eyes. Carve out your heart. And what will you get from Him? Only silence. Indifference…Because God loves us, but the devil takes an interest.”

Dear Jennifer Donnelly,

2014 was a strange and tumultuous year for me. When I read your book, Revolution, I had only just learned that the full-time job I was in was not going to exist by the end of the year. That I was soon to be 23 and unemployed, unmoored in life, and suffering inside. It was an emotional maelstrom, and then suddenly, while audiobook-surfing my library’s website at midnight, I found Revolution. I found this novel I knew nothing about, but that presented me Andi and Alexandrine, two young women fighting against hatred, inaction, despair, and the ever-elusive search for hope.

I suddenly felt alive, torn apart one thread at a time by the glorious harmonic dissonance of your writing — as if you had transcribed the beauty of the diabolus in musica and minor keys into words. The angry splatters of red blood was my own roiling confusion and rage; the swooping blackness of these characters’ true despair was my own disillusionment and self-loathing. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once.

It was the full-colour spectrum of my emotions displayed out before me: taken apart and then, as if by magic, put ever so slowly back together. Because what you wrote, Ms. Donnelly, rang so profoundly true to real life that I had never at that point been so cathartically and emotionally wrung-out in a long time, and it was everything I needed in that moment. It was ecstasy, in all the pain and joy that word implies.

I suppose that means you were the “devil” of this story — who broke the painful silence and, just by writing this book, took an interest.

And so, thank you for writing this. For giving me a novel that, even thinking back now, reminds of the pain it put me through — how it amplified my own darkness and forced me to stare into the void in order to confront it, to deal with it in a healthy way: through fiction, through Andi and Alexandrine by proxy.

And thank you, also, for writing stories of young women trying to be themselves when the world or even their own mind tries to sway them otherwise. Young women like myself greatly appreciate everything you bring to us.

Sincerely,
Madeleine, who also wears a red ribbon

J.K. Rowling

Dear JKR,

Thank you. I grew up reading any and all books I could find, but none left such a mark as the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter gives me a feeling unlike any other. I would say it’s almost magical, but that would be cheesy. When I opened Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, I got bored and set it down. It collected dust for about a year before I picked it up again, and then I couldn’t put it down. I attended all the midnight book releases, movie premieres, and had all the merchandise available at the time. I dreamt in Potter, and was convinced that I would get my letter each summer. I have laughed, sobbed, and screamed during my readings.

When I was diagnosed with depression, Harry Potter was there for me. No matter how little I am able to feel, Harry Potter allows me to feel. When I was hospitalized multiple times, I still had Harry Potter. Every bad day, break up, fight, or loss was lessened by the presence of my HP books. The last book came out nine years ago, but I will never stop rereading whether it be in print or audiobook. Harry Potter gives me life, hope, and happiness unlike anyone or anything I’ve ever known.

To say that Harry Potter saved my life would be an understatement. Thank you, Ms Rowling, for creating the most amazing universe for me to escape into when real life gets tough. Thank you for allowing movies to be made even if they don’t always match the brilliance of the books. Thank you for giving me a fandom where I feel so comfortable. Thank you for giving me friends in Hermione, Neville, and Ron; role models in Ginny and McGonagall; everlasting laughs from Fred, George, and Harry; and self-assurance and confidence from the examples of Luna and Tonks, who stayed true to themselves regardless of what the rest of the world had to say. I couldn’t imagine a world without Harry Potter in it. Thank you for giving me a way to turn on the light during my darkest of times.

Sincerely,
Juliana (Ravenclaw)

Jonathan Stroud

Mr. Stroud,1

I was 12, I believe, when I first picked up The Amulet of Samarkand on a whim2 during a school book fair. I didn’t know anything about it save what little it told me on its back cover — curiously enough I noticed something a little different about that description.3 I’d seen footnotes before, sure, but never in so…snarky a fashion,4 and certainly not in fiction. I was curious; I was intrigued. I was also pretty much sold the moment I saw “A London run by magicians” on the back cover.5

And, sure, your book absolutely gave me a London run by magicians6 and an Amulet of Samarkand,7 but it and the rest of the series was so much more than that.8

Through the absurdly delightful and absolutely brilliant Bartimaeus,9 you introduced an almost-teenager to probably the first antihero that made me laugh,10 while also making me think long and hard about enslavement and the role of government and power.11 Combining Bartimaeus’ spirituous wit with Nathaniel’s stubborn ambition gave me a dynamic antihero duo who were equal parts understandable, relatable, and at times even hateable.12 But, come the conclusion of the trilogy…I was left speechless.13

Totally bittersweet, with characters oftentimes teamed up for reasons of convenience as opposed to genuine feeling for each other.14 The multiple sacrifices made by every character at the end of the final novel rang out incredibly true, even moreso now, I think, as I listen to yet more vitriolic rhetoric in this world. The beautifully flawed characters of your trilogy were perfect for me when growing up, and perfect for me even now as a “grown up.”15

Thank you for writing these characters who, in their very imperfections, are damn near perfect.16 My adolescence, my teenage years, and my so-called adult life are all the better for it.

Sincerely,
Madeleine


Footnotes

  1. I don’t think we’re on a first name basis yet, given we’ve never met, but this does sound terribly formal.
  2. Can you blame me? The cover was blue and had a shiny piece of jewelry as its centrepiece.
  3. I’m sure you can guess…hint: I’m poorly imitating it right now.
  4. Bartimaeus is now my posterchild for prime “snarkentary” in novels.
  5. What can I say? I’ve got a type.
  6. Eyyy, Natty boy.
  7. Shiny!
  8. Augh, this is where I get a little sappy. Feel free to shield your eyes.
  9. Bartimaeus of Uruk, Sakhr al-Jinni, N’gorso the Mighty and the Serpent of Silver Plumes who rebuilt the walls of Uruk, Karnak and Prague; who spoke with Solomon and ran with the buffalo fathers of the plains; who watched over Old Zimbabwe till the stones fell and the jackals fed on its people. Yes, that Bartimaeus.
  10. He gets all the good one-liners.
  11. Don’t get me wrong: obviously slavery is wrong and I knew this. But it made me reconsider it on a fantastical level — the idea that the spirits were slaves and that they experienced physical consequences from their time on Earth. That they might be friends or enemies outside of their masters’ biddings. That was a new one for me. And, of course, with the events of 2016, thinking about the role of government and power is more pertinent and important than ever.
  12. Oh, Nathaniel. You really needed to learn that both humans and spirits had bad things about them.
  13. Okay, that’s a small fib: I was actually sobbing, but let’s pretend that indignity didn’t happen.
  14. Although I like to think that maybe Nathaniel earned a few points in Bartimaeus’ book for his actions in Ptolemy’s Gate, it was both entertaining and illuminating to see these two band together because it was necessary…even while they actively disliked each other.
  15. I’m still fairly certain being a “grown up” is a myth.
  16. I have a feeling Bartimaeus would be objecting to me even considering he has “imperfections.”

Terry Pratchett

Dear Sir Terry,

You showed the world that fantasy, long dominated by backwards-looking escapism, has as much to say about modern society as science fiction does. I had enjoyed one of your children’s books, so after coming across a couple television adaptations a decade later, I decided to give your Discworld series a try. The first book, The Color of Magic, was a blast. I wasn’t hooked, however, until Jingo, which taught me as much about geopolitics and civil-military relations as a semester at Georgetown. (Ok, maybe not quite as much, but it was certainly a better value.)

You helped teach this once cynical and dismissive atheist the value of religion by showing the goodness religious belief can inspire, even as you never ceased to poke fun at pompous or absurd religiosity. Perhaps the most beautiful scene I’ve ever read was when Pastor Mightily Oats, the overeager, literal interpreter of scripture, finally realizes how to save his companion using the words of the prophet – by burning his holy book as kindling.

Belief in your books isn’t passive, but a tool to shape the world. In Hogfather, it’s the ability to believe in the Santa Claus-like title character – basically, to find meaning in stories – that lets us believe in intangible things like justice and mercy. That became how I think of human rights. They exist only because we choose to belief they exist, and the world is a better place for that.

Best of all is the sense of decency that pervades your books – and the reminders never to take one’s own goodness for granted. Like the witches who watch over one another lest one of their number ends up cackling and baking children into pies, we all need good people around us to tell us when we’ve gone too far. Otherwise, we may start to think we’re kinder, smarter, better than other people and that that gives us the right treat them however we want. On the Discworld, as in our own, not everyone is good, but anyone could be good. A goblin. A vampire. An all-powerful dictator. Even an elf.

Thank you,
Lisa