There is something alluring about military science fiction. It takes the massive volume of space and narrows it to a single point: conflict. Often, this specific genre ignores a lot of the more nuanced questions that sci-fi often proposes in favor of a single query: what would humanity do in order to survive? Normally, I miss this complexity and nuance, but every now and then I want an action-focused romp against an easily discernible bad guy that definitely needs a kick in the teeth. Luckily, the folks at Del Rey offered me the chance to fulfill this desire by letting me read John Birmingham’s recently released novel, The Cruel Stars. It’s a book that offers a clear black-and-white conflict with heavy action, but delivers little else.
The Cruel Stars takes place in the Volume, a series of undefined star systems colonized and inhabited by humanity. Two hundred years prior to the events in the book, a civil war was fought to decide the course of human development. To be honest, Birmingham gives the reader very little context about this war beyond “the Sturm lost.” The Sturm, a faction of people that felt they needed to purify the species of any genetic or cybernetic enhancements, were essentially thrown into the void after their defeat. Little is said about the conflict itself, and nothing is specified about the way they lost to one of the book’s protagonists. As the book opens, the Sturm are returning to fulfill their promise. The descendants of the Anti-Sturm (how I refer to them, not Birmingham’s words), the victors of the war, are ill-prepared to deal with their return. The spaceborn naval forces of the Anti-Sturm are crushed in an instant, allowing the Sturm to begin their campaign with confidence. Unfortunately for them, they do not wipe out all resistance, most notably failing to neutralize the man who defeated them two hundred years earlier.
The plot itself is straightforward, putting the reader in the passenger seat as the Volume-wide invasion is witnessed through five different perspectives – all of which take place within the same star system. Birmingham spends little time introducing the five POV characters, offering a chapter to each before the conflict begins. By eschewing worldbuilding and focusing on the characters and plot, Birmingham sets a brisk pace that propels the action forward. The narrative moves with a frenetic style that kept me entertained for the most part, but it leaves little to no real breathing room to really understand the conflict. I don’t mean to say “space Nazis should be given their due,” as much as I want to point out that the people fighting them are barely given a cause beyond “they’re gonna kill us”. It isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but it did not engage me with the fight for survival beyond “the Sturm can’t win”. It’s very black and white, which is what was promised, but the few slow moments left my brain to probe the empty spaces where worldbuilding should have filled in the gaps.
Which leads to the book’s info dump of an introduction that other reviewers warned about. Within the first chapter, I joined the ranks of readers who discovered that the book hits the reader with a lot of information up front before jumping into the “real” story. Normally, this doesn’t bother me, but The Cruel Stars made it more of a slog than usual. Birmingham introduces the story’s primary protagonist in a slurry of unfamiliar and decontextualized military ranking titles while also attempting to explain the character’s background and motivations. This narrative choice was confusing and failed to provide the “hook” that would otherwise have drawn me in. The other introduction chapters read similarly, with scant details on the world and societies that developed after the war, beyond the character’s small relation to them. I wasn’t initially bothered by this choice because it felt like Birmingham was leaving room for characterization to happen later as the protagonists watch their world burning. However, the reader is rarely given an idea of what kind of world the Sturm are destroying, let alone any reason the characters would fight for it. It feels like a missed opportunity to really dig into the setting and the factors that allowed for the rise of the Sturm in the first place.
There is also a very noticeable lack of scale to the story and the conflict. The reader is given very little indication of the size of The Volume. Vague descriptions offer an idea of factions that make up the Volume, but have no indication of their size, location, or political goals. We know that one controlling interest is a megacorporation where the C.E.O. is chosen by feudal birthright, while another powerful political entity employs a type of debt slavery, but that’s about it. Earth exists, but in what capacity, I could not tell you. That isn’t to say Birmingham is scant on details. In fact, he loves having minituae filter through the characters and the way they engage with their surroundings. The issue arises when these details focus so much on the character’s relation to the world that the world itself becomes muddy. It would be cool if that was used to highlight the Volume as a place that needs change, and that this war is just the thing to get it started. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the characters expressed a general disdain for the socio-political structure of their world, there is little interest in following through on that unhappiness to facilitate real change.
The world would have also felt a little more real if the characters themselves went beyond their initial personality. All of the protagonists follow a fairly standard action character archetype, which makes them easy to latch onto. They were likeable enough, but they don’t really grow beyond that introduction. The reader is told that the characters are flawed, but other than being generally obstinate, I’m not sure what their flaws were. They didn’t really exhibit them in any way that felt human or effective. The “flaws” did not add any real character tension between the rag-tag team, nor did it lead to any conflict within the story. On top of that, characters who exhibited traits considered “impure” by the Sturm did not seem to have any added stake in the fight either. Everyone had the same feelings about the Sturm, which was just, “man, I hate those guys.” Even a small window into the life of the Sturm did not open any real avenues for exploration.
While The Cruel Stars has its issues, I actually had some fun with it. There are so many small details scattered through the book that feel like breadcrumbs to a larger context. There is potential for a more cohesive world with a broader and more nuanced understanding of the conflict at hand. The action is fast and intense, making the fights feel loud and messy. There are a few weird and contrived decisions, but overall the story had a nice flow that reminds the reader that a war is happening. The technology used in the opening gambit by the Sturm is terrifying, visceral and unexpected. There is a beautiful nuance to the way the Volume refers to the bad guys as the Sturm, while the bad guys call themselves “The Human Republic.” The little pieces added some flair and kept stringing me along to the end just to see how it would play out.
There is something fascinating about a story that has the ability to entertain while also leaving so much room for dissection. I think where this book mostly falls apart for me is that while I loved all the small details, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It’s disconnected from its own world as much as it is from ours. It barely satiates the need to watch Nazis get their just desserts, while offering little in the way of counterargument to their ideals beyond “no way, José.” The Cruel Stars was fun and had some genuinely cool ideas, but that’s about all I think it has to offer.
Rating: The Cruel Stars 5.5/10