Sci-Fi Novels

‘The Cruel Stars’ Review: A Rip-Roaring, Character-Packed Adventure Through Space

The Cruel Stars shouts science fiction epic from the start, rolling through a wildly expansive cast of characters ranging from a war criminal on death row to a Princess on the run.

It’s a high tech world on the brink of extinction at the hands of an enemy who wants to purify the human race. Birmingham has the writing chops to make it a thrilling ride.


I was amazed at the range of protagonists featured throughout the story. I can’t recall a larger set of characters and somehow it works perfectly, given the scope and style of the storytelling. We have a Lieutenant who finds herself thrust into a seat of power after the unimaginable happens. We have a mysterious soldier sentenced to death row. We have a Princess who suddenly finds herself on the run. We have an incredibly quirky Admiral whose interactions with his AI partner are hilarious. We have an outlaw who gets stuck in the middle of enemy action. Everyone is tested to the edges of their abilities and must fight ferociously to survive. It’s impressive how deftly Birmingham is able to juggle these characters. I cared about each of them and appreciated their individual quirks.


This was the coolest part of the novel. There are concepts that baffled and intrigued me, namely the high-tech spaceships that somehow fold space-time to create a ship that’s larger inside than out. I can’t wrap my head around the concept, and I’m probably describing it wrong, but it’s incredibly badass nonetheless. Add to that a genetically modified population of humans and AIs straight out of the sleekest sci-fi adventure and you have a pretty cool technology-driven universe. 


The system of mind preservation is fascinating to imagine. These people are living for centuries, simply transferring their minds into different bodies. The ultimate punishment is to have your mind erased, hence removing your centuries worth of life from all records and preventing rebirth. I can’t fathom living that long, but it definitely has different effects on people. Some seem worn out and tired of constantly living. Other become complacent, just accepting they can always be reborn. 

As a science fiction reviewer, I’m naturally on the side of the enhanced because that’s awesome and I’d love to have a vision overlay showing me any number of things real time.


The overarching conflict brings up an interesting conversation on what it means to be human. On the one hand, you have the villains, a race of non-enhanced humans who believe any addition of bio-tech removes your humanity and requires extermination. It’s as extreme as it gets. On the other hand, you have the race of incredibly enhanced humans who are all connected into a central neural net. As a science fiction reviewer, I’m naturally on the side of the enhanced because that’s awesome and I’d love to have a vision overlay showing me any number of things real time. With the attack on the enhanced universe, an important issue comes to the forefront. Without access to this neural net, everyone forgets how to do everything. They’ve spent so many decades relying on easy access that they can’t fend for themselves. Given our reliance on smartphones for everything, it doesn’t seem too far off.

The Cruel Stars
By John Birmingham
Published by Del Rey

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.

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