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Book Review: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Title: The Cruel Stars

Author: John Birmingham

Series: The Cruel Stars #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong. The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying. These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed. -Goodreads

The Review:

Although wildly entertaining, The Cruel Stars didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

It started out with a bunch of POV introductions, one at a time, that took up a good 20% of the page count. The language was a bit thick at first, and there were a few info-dump scenes where the entire conversation served no purpose but to tell the reader stuff about the character. Needless to say, it took a moment to get going.

But get going it did, and I found myself interested in most of the characters. The concept is that these slightly remarkable individuals will have to come together to save the galaxy from an elitist threat. So the culminations of events that eventually converged them together kept my interest really well. There was also a good balance between slow character development moments and action scenes (after the first 20%). When the inciting moment finally hit, I was hooked.

Up until the last few chapters, I had the book at a 4-star rating. But the way the events unfolded left me wanting. For starters, the “remarkableness” of the individuals involved didn’t play a huge role in the final conflict. What’s more, all of the interesting dynamics that had been building the whole book were reduced down to a surprisingly simple outcome. It was too simple for my tastes, taking the expansive feel of the story and reducing it down to a minuscule gunfight within a few mile radius. At least, that’s how it felt.

I loved the concept of the enemy – a group of human “purists” who are out to destroy any who have been genetically or cybernetically altered. But Birmingham didn’t really explore that much in this first book. There was a single sentence in passing that speculated on whether or not the alterations were destroying what makes people “human” at their core (implying it could eventually cause them to destroy themselves) that my mind ran with. It gave the hated enemy a really interesting ground to stand on because, theoretically, they could have an outside perspective of corruption that those ingrained in the system can’t see (or they could just be evil fanaticists… it’s hard to tell). But it got me asking questions: What does the “enemy” know that the POVs don’t?! Is there more depth here? But the problem is that none of this was explored in the text, it’s just my own conjecture.

I love profanity in books. Seriously. A well-placed f-bomb can completely elevate a scene, and I especially love when it’s used for comedic effect. But for it to work, it has to be incorporated with a certain amount of consciousness. Swearing is it’s own art form, and and based on its use in Cruel Stars, Birmingham was essentially fingerprinting with mud. The placement was random and in such great volume that it only served to make the characters sound crass and uncreative. Even its placement within each sentence made the language clunky and awkward.

So for some pacing issues, an over-simplified climax, an under-realized concept, and the chaotic use of profanity, I came away from the book disappointed in enough key elements that I probably won’t be continuing the series, but also still kind of glad I’d read it.

Recommendations: the book advertises that it’s similar to both the Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, but I thought it channeled Serenity more than anything else (if we must compare. Although it did have some similarities to the BG tangent Pegasus, but the comparison is thin). I probably wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve already read a bunch of other titles in the genre and just want some mindless action with a little humor mixed in. I was a lot more critical in this review than I usually am, but at least the book provoked something from me. And despite my objections, it was still enjoyable to read. Do with that what you will haha.

Other books you might like (…better):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Network Effect by Martha Wells [May 5, 2020]

Title: Network Effect

Author: Martha Wells

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: May 5, 2020

The Overview: You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot. Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are. When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. Drastic action it is, then. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are few things in life that make me happier than spending time with Murderbot.

… which is ironic, considering it it would rather do literally anything than be social. The Novellas alone were enough to solidify the series as an all-time favorite, so discovering this full-length novel was in the works immediate jumped it to the top of my priority list for 2020. Network Effect was every bit as sardonic, action-packed, and endearing as the novellas, but took it one step further by adding even more depth to the characters.

The unique writing style is the best thing about these books (aside from character construction). It doesn’t follow typical storytelling constructs and often comes across as more conversational than anything else. There’s a great deal of punctuation used to convey Murderbot’s sardonic tone, and no shortage of profanity for comedic impact. I’ve never read anything that comes this close to how I communicate in my daily life, so even the bones of how the story was presented sang to my soul. There were a few occasions where the sarcastic voice was a bit heavy-handed, but this is one of the few cases I would rather a little too much than not enough.

And then we have Murderbot. The best character in sci-fi, hands down.

I think it’s my spirit animal. It’s awkward and introverted and just wants to be left alone to watch its tv serials and I can relate to every single solitary time it couldn’t bring itself to “people” anymore. But the brilliance in this novel is that, social obligational constructs aside, it still craves connection. And that’s where the story becomes much more than a action-packed sci-fi. It’s about a rogue SecUnit trying to carve out a place for itself in the universe. Did Murderbot make me cry? Maybe. I don’t know. Fuck off.

Recommendations: The Murderbot Diaries is in close running with The Expanse and Planetside as my favorite sci-fi on the market. It’s exciting, it’s funny as shit, and it has that magic X-factor that gets people emotionally invested. Start with All Systems Red, and I bet you’ll know within the first few pages if it’s something you’ll enjoy. I was hooked from the first sentence, and it has only gotten better from there. Consider this an official Obsessive Bookseller endorsement – this series is fantastic!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Review: Auberon by James S.A. Corey

Title: Auberon

Author: James S.A. Corey

Series: The Expanse #8.5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Auberon is one of the first and most important colony worlds in humanity’s reach, and the new conquering faction has come to claim it. Governor Rittenaur has come to bring civilization and order to the far outpost and guarantee the wealth and power of the Empire.

But Auberon already has its own history, a complex culture, and a criminal kingpin named Erich with very different plans. In a world of deceit, violence, and corruption, the greatest danger Rittenaur faces is love. -Goodreads

The Review:

A full review for a novella?! Only when it’s from James S.A. Corey. These novellas usually focus on periphery characters, and I love how in-depth and meaningful the authors make them. The stories are always about the human connection and digging into what motivates us. Auberon took a few pages to warm up, but quickly built momentum. I was totally enthralled by the end. There’s one scene in particular that about had me out of my seat in shock. And that ending! O_O

Auberon dives into the culture and struggles of an outpost colony. It presents some interesting dynamics regarding settlements that take on lives of their own, moving increasingly away from the entities that originally colonized them. It’s seems, no matter the setting, humanity is self-serving when resources are scarce, dragging its corruptive ways to the edges of the universe. Then throw in a character (Gov. Rittenaur) who’s supposed to show up and restore focus and order to this lot with absolutely no backing save his supposed “authority”… and you have a fascinating tale. And a stressful one.

And amidst all of those exterior dynamics, the story also provides an examination of personal vices and how they shape our behavioral patterns. I personally found Rittenaur’s vice especially poignant: perfectionism. A need for things to go according to plan and a strong desire for structure. The story really immersed you into the internal struggles of these characters, and I also thought the authors did an especially good job at incorporating sensory detail.

I’m not usually one for novellas unless it’s a series I’m super passionate about (The Expanse qualifies), and even then, I find they often don’t add a whole lot to the main story. The Expanse novellas are the exception. They may not always have direct influence on the story, but they always immerse you into what it means to be human – the point of the whole series, IMO. Auberon was a glimpse into the lives of those on the fringes of society, and it was a heart-wrenching one at that. These authors are brilliant at making me care about even the most insignificant players, and I’m always holding my breath, wondering what choices they’re going to make. People are beautiful, wretched, resourceful, loving, greedy, and always full of surprises, and this novella highlighted that variety for me.

Side note: apparently they incorporated a character from the Churn (another Expanse novella) but I read them so far apart I didn’t make the connection (or even remember the character lol). I’m not sure how this story will play in the bigger picture (if at all), but it was a good teaser to keep me satiated until the final novel comes out (I can’t wait!!).

Recommendations: The Expanse is one of the easiest series to recommend – it has a little bit of everything and is consistently good throughout the series (happily ignoring the tangent that was book 4). And the novellas are equally as good. If you haven’t picked any up, now’s a good time to start with the finale just around the corner…

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Title: Iron Gold

Author: Pierce Brown

Series: Red Rising #4

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself? And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever: A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined. An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life. And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes. -Goodreads

The Review: 

After being back and forth on this book over the last year, my brain cells finally have a consensus: Iron Gold was a satisfying continuation to the original trilogy.

I first picked up the book shortly after it came out, then ended up abandoning it several chapters in. It took me too much time to re-immersed, and every time it started to gain momentum, there’d be a new POV. I lost interest, then I started confusing characters, so I got fed up and put it down.

I’m glad I picked it back up.

I thought the additional POVs added nice perspectives to how the system had changed since the uprising. It gave a glimpse into the after-effects felt within each cast (which Darrow’s view alone wouldn’t have conveyed sufficiently). It’s ironic that the exact thing that made me abandon Iron Gold a year ago is now one of the things I liked most about the book.

Another thing I didn’t like originally was the timeline – how soon after Morning Star the story began. I was expecting a next-generation spinoff and didn’t know how to feel about a full-blown continuation. As it turns out, this is also something I ended up appreciating about the book. It would’ve been much easier for Brown to start relatively fresh after ending on such a high note, but I actually thought it took a lot of balls to pick up where it left off. We’ll see if it pays off, but after this 4th book I’m left applauding his creativity and commitment to seeing this story through. I’m eager to see how the overall conflict is going to resolve.

Recommendations: Iron Gold is definitely worth the read if you loved the first trilogy. It has that same dramatic writing that’ll gut-punch you left and right (it’s nice to be back, lol), and it’s a truly bonafide continuation. The beginning suffers a pacing issue with a bunch of POV changes, but the momentum it builds off of that is worth the investment.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Spaceside by Michael Mammay

Spaceside by Michael Mammay

Title: Spaceside

Author: Michael Mammay

Series: Planetside #2

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Following his mission on Cappa, Colonel Carl Butler returns to a mixed reception. To some he is a do-or-die war hero. To the other half of the galaxy he’s a pariah. Forced into retirement, he has resettled on Talca Four where he’s now Deputy VP of Corporate Security, protecting a high-tech military company on the corporate battlefield—at least, that’s what the job description says. Really, he’s just there to impress clients and investors. It’s all relatively low risk—until he’s entrusted with new orders. A breach of a competitor’s computer network has Butler’s superiors feeling every bit as vulnerable. They need Butler to find who did it, how, and why no one’s taken credit for the ingenious attack. As accustomed as Butler is to the reality of wargames—virtual and otherwise—this one screams something louder than a simple hack. Because no sooner does he start digging when his first contact is murdered, the death somehow kept secret from the media. As a prime suspect, he can’t shake the sensation he’s being watched…or finally succumbing to the stress of his past. Paranoid delusion or dangerous reality, Butler might be onto something much deeper than anyone imagined. But that’s where Butler thrives. If he hasn’t signed his own death warrant. –Goodreads

The Review:

I love love love this series. I love the character. I love the story. I love how tight the writing is. I love the dry humor. I love that the mystery had me thinking about the book every time I set it down. It has been a hot minute since a series has drawn me back to it so strongly. It continues to provide all the story components I’m craving these days, and for me at least, it’s the perfect read.

The brilliance of this story is the superb main character, Colonel Carl Butler. I freaking love him. He’s straightforward, clever, and he really doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks… but at the same time he has this cool moral compass that drives him want to do right by people, even if he can’t always support it through action. The ever-present underlying sardonic nature of Carl’s thoughts delights me to no end. He’s written so well it feels like reading about an actual person, which is the highest compliment I can give to a character. He’s the main reason I’m loving this series so much and feel so connected to it.

Mammay’s writing is a breath of fresh air. I love the tone of his storytelling, the witty dialogue, and overall presentation… it’s so smart. The main character is excellent at reading people, and profile demands a lot of complex rationalizing and assessment that must have taken a lot of extra effort to infuse so seamlessly into the story. It’s absolutely fascinating! Mammay is also good at starting at a slow burn and building interest and momentum as the story goes. Good momentum in stories has often made the difference between a decent book and an amazing 5-star can’t-put-it-down read for me, and it’s always a factor I take into consideration when reviewing. This is the second time I felt catapulted to the end, and I freaking love that.

With not only one, but two awesome books under his belt so far, I can say with confidence that Michael Mammay is now one of my favorite authors. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next!

Recommendations: it’s no secret that I’m an uber fan of Planetside (book 1) because I’ve been talking about it constantly. Spaceside was just as good! It’s a highly engaging military sci-fi that’s super easy to recommend because of its concise writing, dry humor, and exciting action. It hooked me right from the start. Give this series a try!! It might not delight you to the same extent it did me, but I can stand behind it as a great read you won’t regret picking up!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Title: A Memory Called Empire

Author: Arkady Martine

Series: Teixcalaan #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident–or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion–all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret–one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life–or rescue it from annihilation. -Goodreads

The Review:

I have to take a moment to explain how excited I was to dive into this book. I was expecting rich culture, a complex plotline, and fascinating characters. And while I think all those components made an appearance, they weren’t nearly as amped up as I was hoping they’d be.

In fact, 85% of the story was pure dialogue and explanations. It TOLD me about this cool alien world and society, but it often neglected to SHOW me. And that feels like a colossal opportunity wasted. Incidentally, I felt the exact same about Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh – cool concept (so many good ideas to play with), interesting characters (who lacked depth), and sluggish plots (where not much happens, but we discussed a shitload). Maybe that’s the M.O. of this specific sub-genre though and I’m just not equipped to appreciate it. Or maybe I’m just too impatient and many of these things will develop as the series continues. Whatever the case, I tend to expect sci-fi’s to have more action, world-building, or at the very least, some deep character connection. None of which were abundant here…

I thought the political intrigue and overall mystery of the story were interesting, but it took so long to learn new things about it that, by the time I got to the last 10% of the book, I was so disengaged and bored that I no longer cared. It was a major struggle to finish. And for whatever reason, the eventual revelation felt over simplified for such a seemingly sophisticated society.

Part of that declining interest had to do with the main character. She thought about a lot of stuff, but she didn’t make me feel anything, and I remained totally at arm’s distance the entire time. Coming off of Tiamat’s Wrath by Corey, my expectations were definitely inflated. For a book largely focused on character immersion and very little else, the characters need to shine, and for me they just didn’t.

Series status: I’ve bookmarked the sequel on Goodreads, but I honestly don’t think I’m going to pick it up. It just didn’t tickle my fancy.

Recommendations: if you’re in the market for a sci-fi with a cool concept and a shit-ton of dialogue and discussion, this is a good pick (I’m being snarky, but I acknowledge that sometimes a talky novel is just what the doctor ordered). I personally craved more action and world-building (seeing it, not hearing about it), so I was left wanting, but I can see the intellectual appeal this novel might bring to some.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes