BLUF- Recommend. Action, solid characters, cool premise and execution.
Today is another launch day, readers, for The Cruel Stars. You can get it in Australia here, or here for the US. It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for a couple of years. First, full disclosure. I was a beta plus reader on this work, I had the privilege of watching it unfold from the ground up. Second, let me say that I’m a huge fan of space operas. I have been since I was a kid reading Asimov. So I’m pre-disposed to like this book. Finally, I’m a dedicated reader of Birmingham’s, which long time lurkers of this site have probably picked up on.
I say all of this to alert you that it’s pretty hard for me to be neutral about this book. So I won’t even try. I really liked it, at least the beta version. There’s been a little homework on my part on the web, looking at critiques by other readers. In that regard there have been a few common threads. Allow me to give my take on these.
Some readers haven’t liked the profusion of characters; there are five or six chief POVs in this book. Well, I didn’t have any trouble switching perspectives while reading, but then again I’ve been reading a lot of Vasily Grossman’s stuff lately. Wow, talk about a bewildering cast of characters; JB’s stuff is very straightforward as opposed to a Russian novelist.
Speaking of the POVs, I enjoyed them all. They had distinct voices. There wasn’t any carbon-copy BS in there. Whether the POV belonged to McLennan the crusty scientist or Sephina the space pirate, they were crystal clear and concise. No blurring, no confusion.
Other critiques are that this is an Honor Harrington rip-off. I’ve read some Honor stuff, and I’m not seeing this comparison. Sure, both series feature a female lead in space warfare. OK, but the similarities end there, as far as I’m concerned. Lucinda, the newly-promoted officer of the line, is thrust into a situation far different from anything in the Honorverse. Also, her background is quite different from Honor, and this plays out into a particularly vicious, bitter subplot with a nobleman named Chase.
Which leads into my next point. JB has created a very distinct universe; I haven’t seen something quite the same anywhere else. Think space blitzkrieg by murderous race purists against a genetically altered humankind, an imperfect society populated by distinct layers of haves vs. have-nots. Some critics have pointed out a level of sympathy with the Sturm, Lucinda’s enemies, until certain aspects of their “liberation” are revealed.
Personally, I like shades of grey in a book. This is realism. Good people are capable of great evil, and vice versa. No one is a saint.
This is particularly true in Cruel Stars.
Which leads into another critique I’ve seen on the web; scenes of graphic violence and colorful language. Yes, it’s true. The enemy in this lead-off to the series uses a diabolical means of launching their offensive against, well, all of humanity. The result is particularly nasty, and JB faithfully describes what would happen if such an attack took place.
Well, sorry, readers, but war is gross. There’s no other way to describe it. As to the colorful language… I’ve seen some pretty God-fearing soldiers bust out f-bombs left and right when the bullets fly. This is realism, too.
Soooo, to sum up. If you like space operas, you’ll probably like this book. If you’re looking for action, this will suit. If you want to laugh one minute while sucking in your breath the next, check it out. If you want to recoil in disgust and then root for your chosen hero to prevail, press the “buy it now” button.
The Cruel Stars, a recommended late summer read.
See if you can finish before the kids start getting on their busses. I’ve bought an actual hardcover; I eagerly await the polished result of Birmingham’s long labor. Rest assured, before those yellow boxes start to roll I’ll have been through it (again) cover to cover.
Check it out!