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Book Review

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The Cruel Stars (Hardback)


Author: John Birmingham
Publisher: Head of Zeus
482 pages
RRP: £18.99
ISBN: 978 1 789 545913
Publication Date: 20 August 2019

I have to declare my colours here as an unrepentant fan of space opera. True, they are rarely deep books and they usually borrow tropes from all over the place, but a well written space opera, is just the thing to keep you entertained.

A fine piece of space nonsense arrives in the form of John Birmingham’s The Cruel Stars (2019. 482 pages). The twist for this book is that it incorporates space Nazi’s and they are not Daleks.

The book is obviously supposed to be the first in the series as this novel only succeeds in laying down some of the world building as well as slowly bringing our disparate band of rebels together, by the novel's end.

The known universe is controlled by a combination of commercial houses and aristocracy, with the general population being held in an almost medieval thralldom. The society is technologically advanced and reminded me of a less insightful version of Iain Bank’s Culture.

The status quo is upset by the return into human space of the Sturm (troopers anyone?) a section of humanity who believe in racial purity.

They feel that the augments and changes that humanity have subjected themselves means that they are less than human and ready to be exterminated. They especially dislike the AI robots. More intelligent than their human counterparts, the Sturm believe that humans have lost their souls.

I have to admit to being a little thrown when the Sturm initially show up. It’s not that I was expecting it to be just aliens, but there was insufficient run up for me to work out who they were. It's ok, it settles down once the penny drops.

The main characters are drawn from well-known tropes. Commander Lucinda Hardy is the plucky heroine who has to take over her ship once all the people above her have been killed in the first Sturm attack. She is not sure of herself, but we know that she will work this out.

Alessia is a strange one, born a princess, in a closeted world; she has to escape the Sturm when her planet is attacked. She has the lessor journey of all the characters and is, externally, as helpless at the close of the tales as she was at the beginning. It is not that she is not without resources or courage; it’s that she has little time to shine against much stronger characters.

The best character is retired Admiral Frazer McLennan, the grizzled and cantankerous old soldier who spends his time prior to the invasion hiding in deserts, practicing archaeology and trying to forget his bloody past. The set is rounded off with Booker, a soldier waiting on death row who escapes when his habitat is attacked.

Now, I know there is nothing deep and meaningful about either the setting or the characters, but Birmingham writes with a great deal of humour and action. It’s a space opera, but it’s a good one.


Charles Packer

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