Series: The Cruel Stars (#1)
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Genre: Military SF
Publication Date: 2019
Long after they were assumed defeated, the Sturm have returned to menace human civilisation once again. In a devastating first strike, they unleash chaos across countless worlds. And they are only just getting started . . .
The Cruel Stars is not my first experience with John Birmingham. That honour goes to After America, which was an SF-adjacent thriller about a world with no Americans. There are certain similarities between that book and this: the sense of recovery from disaster, the isolation of human civilisation. But the biggest crossover is Birmingham’s style. Though this is space opera by way of military SF through and through, The Cruel Stars reads like a thriller novel. Tom Clancy or Jack Ryan would feel right at home here. Now, I don’t read modern thrillers, having far too much on my plate as it is, but the change of pace from my usual style of book is marked. It’s pacy, exciting, and packs quite a punch. I for one wouldn’t miss more books in this style.
Going into this book, I had a lot of expectations. Not expectations that I would enjoy it (though I of course hoped I would), but assumptions about the sort of story I was going to read. I thought this would be more straight military SF, so when the other elements crept in I was taken by surprise. I had also assumed that the Sturm would be an alien race, when it turns out that they are the most human of all. This is not treated as a revelation within the book, so I don’t count it as a spoiler. These assumptions did colour my initial enjoyment of the book, but once I realised how wrong I had been, I started to enjoy the story a whole lot more.
The start is a bit of a challenge however. In the first six chapters we get six points of view, which is a lot for a book of this size. And, as always with multi-PoV books, I enjoyed some characters more than others. The first, Lieutenant Hardy, remained my favourite character throughout, possibly because she most embodied the book I expected to be reading. The military side of this book is very strong. The lone ship fighting against overwhelming odds is a classic trope for a reason, and Birmingham pulls it off very well. I wasn’t so enthused with some of the other characters. I think I might have had my fill of space scoundrels for a while – give me professionals any day! – but overall I didn’t feel like any of the PoVs were wasted or underused.
Like many first books in a series, The Cruel Stars largely exists to set the stage and bring all the players together, and it does this very well. There are enough mysteries going on here to keep anyone interested, and the characters will start to grow on you by the end. On top of that, there are some top-notch action scenes, both space combat and ground-side exploits. There’s also a thick vein of humour running through. never an out-and-out comedy, but a dry and often black wit that spices things up rather well.
If you want a multi-PoV epic with a healthy dose of heart, The Cruel Stars is probably the book you didn’t know you’re looking for. As for me, I’ll be waiting for the sequels.
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