The Cruel Stars

I was intrigued when I received my advance reading copy of John Birmingham's The Cruel Stars, especially since the blurb mentioned that it was perfect for fans of James S. A. Corey's The Expanse. I was expecting space opera with depth and vision, even though this was a stand-alone novel.

Alas, it was anything but that. The Cruel Stars is a fun and action-packed scifi romp that doesn't take itself too seriously, no doubt about it. But like any big-budget movie relying on special effects rather than storytelling, the plot is full of holes and in the end the book is rather forgettable.

Here's the blurb:

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.

The premise of a species purist race returning after centuries of exile to eradicate human beings with genetic or cybernetic enhancements was interesting, but the author's execution left a lot to be desired. All things considered, the worldbuilding is pretty thin and things often don't make a whole lot of sense. Why did the Sturm spend centuries in the far reaches of Dark Space? How can a race for far behind in terms of technology and military might could unleash such a decisive attack against mankind, a strike that not only cripples them but brings humanity on the brink of annihilation? Why select such random targets to begin their invasion? Yada yada yada. As is normally the case those aforementioned big-budget flicks, it's better to try not to ask too many questions and just enjoy the show. Otherwise, things will go downhill fast. . .

All in all, The Cruel Stars is more of a science fiction comedy than a space opera book. True, there are space battles and lots of shit blows up. And yet, there is no depth whatsoever. None. This ain't exactly Space Balls, but it's also a far cry from The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica. If you're into dark humor, this novel will likely make you chuckle in every chapter. In the end, that's what saved this work for me. I just put my brain on pause and buckled up for the ride.

The characterization often suffers from cardboard cutout protagonists. Other than Lucinda Hardy, forced to take command of what could be the only remaining Royal Armadalen Navy warship, and Booker3, a trooper on death row about to be deleted. Young Princess Alessia also has her moments. Most of the others are parodies and caricatures. Having said that, they're still a disparate and lovable bunch of flawed characters. The sooner you realize that this book doesn't take itself seriously, the sooner you can start enjoying it for what it is. That won't prevent you from face-palming yourself a number of times along the way, but The Cruel Stars is just that kind of work.

John Birmingham keeps things moving at a good rhythm. And although things often don't make sense, the story progresses without any pacing issues. The endgame and the finale are clichéd through and through, yet they are exactly what the plot needed to make this work.

The Cruel Stars may lack, depth, vision, and imagination. Still, it turned out to be a fun and often balls-to-the-wall kind of scifi romp. Though it probably won't make any of this year's shortlists for best novels, it could be an entertaining vacation read or a good way to kill time during the morning/evening commute. As long as you know what you're getting into, you won't be disappointed.

The final verdict: 7/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

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