THE CRUEL STARS by John Birmingham


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An uptight navy commander, an intelligent app aboard an android body, a lesbian pirate, a bored young princess, a curmudgeonly old warrior, and a snarky battle AI save the galaxy from angry species-ist cultists. Well, they make a start.

Unsurprisingly for readers familiar with Birmingham's work (The Golden Minute, 2018, etc.), his latest trends toward the sanguinary. Centuries ago the Sturm, fanatics intent on "liberating" those they term true humans by exterminating anybody with genetic or cybernetic enhancements, attacked and were driven off—just barely—by Adm. Frazer McLennan and Herodotus, his battle AI. Now they're back. Their surprise attack on the prosperous and powerful Armadale system with warships and malicious computer code decisively knocks out the defenses. All is not lost, though. Decorated yet still insecure Lt. Lucinda Hardy finds herself in command of the Royal Armadalen Navy's only surviving warship. A Sturm attack on a prison compound enables Booker, a soldier app sentenced to deletion for treason, to switch to a robot body and escape. Pirate captain Sephina L'trel, whose usual operational mode involves ripping off outfits like the Yakuza, puts her nefarious skills to fighting the invaders. Warrior-turned-astroarchaeologist McLennan leaves off bickering with Herodotus long enough to take charge and organize the rescue of young Princess Alessia of Montanblanc, whom the Sturm captured after murdering the rest of her family. Following the introductions, the narrative canters along at a good clip, dashing off insane cannibals, exploding warships, detached heads, and cartwheeling body parts, with occasional transfusions of dark comic relief. Some highlights: McLennan appears stark naked to greet a bunch of pompous bigwigs; in a riotous bar scene, Sephina and crew, Yakuza, and Sturm all blaze away at each other; Booker's dismay at being loaded into a mechanical hedge trimmer.

Frenetic action viewed in a black fun-house mirror.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-399-59331-4
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Del Rey
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2019


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