Head of Zeus | 2019 (20 August) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book
Five centuries ago, the Sturm, having lost the Great War, retreated into the far reaches of space. But they have never been forgotten, humanity (such as it has become) still lives in dread of its nemesis. And now the Sturm has returned, determined to rid human space of those who have adapted to life beyond Earth’s limits with implants and gene therapy, keeping alive through multiple lifetimes by rebirthing or by passing on their consciousness, their spirit, into other bodies. But the Sturm, pure in body and ruthless in their fanaticism, are also after vengeance, particularly against the man who led the war against them, Admiral Frazer McLennan, who is now seeing out another of his long lives as an archaeologist digging up a crashed Sturm spaceship, a site sacred to the Sturm. McLennan really knows how to rub salt in the wound.
The coming of the Sturm will take human space to the brink of annihilation. Few stand in their way – Lucinda Hardy, commander of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship; Booker3, a soldier about to be executed for treason; Princess Alessia whose whole family has been slaughtered; Sephina L’trel, a pirate caught up in it all who fights for the Resistance. And then there’s McLennan himself, as well as his grumpy AI Hero who likes nothing better than to throw anything it doesn’t like into the nearest sun. They’re a motley crew but together they are determined and brave. They’re also desperate and when you’re that desperate you’ll risk everything. And there is everything to lose.
The Cruel Stars opens a new space opera trilogy by John Birmingham and it opens it in very fine form indeed. The worldbuilding is superb. This may be the future but everyone is still recognisable as human (even those with animal enhancements or those who are managing to live forever by a variety of curious means). This is an enhanced world but it certainly has its faults. There are factions and feuds, superstitions and strange religions, fascinating artificial intelligences, revered almost as gods. There is so much depth and variety to this universe, so many ideas. There is more than enough here to sustain a trilogy. I can’t wait to learn more about it.
The novel is packed with action, drama and battles. But it is character-driven as chapters alternate between people we really want to know. I love this sort of structure, which is, of course, reminiscent of the Expanse novels. When done well this really works, as it does here in The Cruel Stars.
I loved all of the characters and each has their own fascinating storyline, but my favourite is McLennan. What a man he is! He seems to spend much of his time recklessly naked, which is rather unpleasant for everyone else, but he’s too old and ugly to care what anyone thinks. And through him we learn more about the conflict 500 years before.
This is a war between good and evil. The bad guys have no redeeming features. As a result, the battles are bloody, gory and full of dismembered limbs flying around. But there is fun to be had. Booker3’s situation is brilliant and very funny. There is also horror – space zombies are rarely pleasant. There are some great ideas, some paying homage to the science fiction world – starships are larger on the inside than on the outside.
The Cruel Stars is such an entertaining space opera, which achieves the perfect mix of action and character. Each enhances and drives the other. This might be the start of a trilogy but the novel stands alone perfectly well and is complete in itself, something I always appreciate. I can’t wait to discover what happens next. I love these characters and I look forward to spending much more time with them. It will be tense, it will be bloody but there will also be something to chuckle about. Excellent!