Book Review: The Cruel Stars – by John Birmingham

noob series #1

Scifi, Spaceships

Del Rey; August 20, 2019

416 pages (eBook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

NetGalley furnished me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Totally thought I posted this already, but I can’t find evidence of that anywhere, so… Huh. Well, here it is!

The Cruel Stars is a space opera set in a black-and-white world populated by vibrant and interesting characters. It chronicles the return of an old enemy, once defeated—the Sturm, a radical group of human purists set on purging the galaxy of any they don’t see as genetically pure. Where initially the world seems well-thought out and complete, it quickly becomes clear that the story is set entirely within the bounds of a single star-system, while supposedly the invasion is staged on a galactic scale. Plagued by uneven pacing and a fairly uninteresting story, The Cruel Stars is certainly an example of a piece that just would not come together as it was meant to.

Five regular POVs (and one infrequent) tell the tale of the Sturm’s attack: retired Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero known for defeating the Sturm hundreds of year prior. Princess Alessia, twelve year-old and heir to the Montanblanc Corporation. Booker 3-212162-930-Infantry, once soldier now prisoner and believer in the Code—a kind of digital consciousness that transcends the human body. Lieutenant Lucinda Hardy, initially assigned to the stealth corvette Defiant, a series of malware attacks soon sees her in charge of the ship, the entire mission hanging in the balance. Sephina L’trel, a pirate leader with a score to settle, must use all the tricks at her disposal to see her crew through the invasion. (Archon-Admiral Wenbo Strom of the Sturm is seen but a few times and makes a poor POV, due to a lack of depth and a heavily racist overtone that firmly entrenches him as a bad guy).

I’m pretty sure I was the only one annoyed about this, but: There is no perfect enemy. There are two short Sturm POVs, both using their ideology to just kill people. Not even those implanted, genetically modified, post-humans, but also the regular unadorned they came to “save”. Not that I’m defending the racists, but the author isn’t either. They’re the designated as the bad guys. While their ideology or beliefs or prejudices and such are never explained, or even briefed. By the 89% mark, there have been 3 Sturm POV appearances. All short, which totals to around one full chapter in length. So there’s really no dissenting opinion—one side is good, the other bad. I would’ve liked to see someone on the other side, some perspective into their thought process beyond blind doctrine-spouting. But hey, my opinion.

There’s also very little disconnect with the modern world. The weapons are fairly well thought out, but little else. The detail that Birmingham strives for in the first half soon departs, leaving the action and plot to carry the entire weight. I probably wouldn’t have minded as much had the plot been good. Sadly, what follows is a straightforward story with little to no character growth and frankly a lame ending. During the second half of the book, the author goes out of his way to remind the reader again and again of the characters’ motivations, backstories, and even why the Sturm are bad.

While the Cruel Stars was an excellent read over its first half, the following 200 pages struggled with identity, uneven pacing, and a slight, under-developed world. While the action is enough to carry the book to its outset—a subpar, unfulfilling ending leaves the audience awaiting the sequel just to figure out what exactly happened.

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