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
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):
Planetside by Michael Mammay
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
by Niki Hawkes