The Cruel Stars

The Cruel Stars

by John Birmingham

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Overview

Five intrepid heroes must unite to save civilization after a long-dormant enemy awakens and strikes a devastating blow in this epic sci-fi adventure for fans of The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica.

“Frenetic action viewed in a black fun-house mirror.”—Kirkus Reviews


The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong.

The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying.

These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed.

“This jarring, engrossing story of a species-wide fight for survival is recommended for all science fiction readers.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399593314
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 105,717
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

John Birmingham is the author of Emergence, Resistance, Ascendance, After America, Without Warning, Final Impact, Designated Targets, Weapons of Choice, and other novels, as well as Leviathan—which won the National Award for Nonfiction at Australia’s Adelaide Festival of the Arts—and the novella Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Playboy, and numerous other magazines. He lives on top of a hill with his wife, daughter, son, two cats, and two dogs.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The rock turned silently in hard vacuum, and the young woman with it. She pressed her nose to the porthole, which fogged with her breath while she waited for night to sweep over this part of the base. It would come, dark and frozen, within a few minutes, revealing the star field of the local volume, the vast blue-green pearl of the planet far below, and the lights of the nearest Hab, another naval station like this hollowed-out moonlet.

Lucinda waited for the stars. In the right mood, in a rare abstracted moment, she sometimes wondered at the way they wrapped themselves around her, seeming close yet infinitely distant. As she wondered, dusk came pouring over the small mountain range to the east, advancing in a wave of fast shadows and lengthening pools of inky blackness. She could not see the darkness coming for her on this part of the rock, but she imagined it swallowing the local area point defenses and the gaping maw of the docks. The entrance to the port was always illuminated, but the lights soon would burn with a severe brilliance in the accelerated night.

She was not floating, but she felt light and only barely in touch with the deck in the standard one-tenth grav here on the surface as she inspected her reflection in the armor glass.

A young woman frowned back at her. The uniform was not quite right. Tight at the shoulders, a little loose around the waist. The best she could afford. She regarded herself even more critically in the ready-to-wear black and whites. Severely pretty, she had been told by men she did not entirely trust. A little off-putting and perhaps unnecessarily discouraging according to girlfriends she probably could believe.

Nonetheless. It would all have to do.

“Lieutenant Hardy?”

Surprised out of her reverie, she jumped a little, reaching out reflexively to the nearest wall to arrest herself before she could take gentle flight. She was embarrassed at being caught out.

“Yes,” she said, her voice catching just a little as she turned away from the view, reorienting herself to the spare utilitarian lines of the transit lounge. The glowstrips on the carbon armor walls were old enough to need replacing months ago. Rows of hard o-plastic seating looked bleached and brittle under the weak lighting. She was the only other officer in the space. The only other person for the last hour. This part of the facility was restricted, and foot traffic was thin.

“Sorry for the delay, ma’am,” the young man said, saluting. He was a baby lieutenant, a subbie, just out of the Academy she guessed from his age and eagerness, and his eyes went a little wide as he took in the campaign ribbons on her uncomfortably heavy jacket. He wore dark blue general-duty coveralls and carried a sidearm low on his thigh. Lucinda, in her black and white dress uniform, felt awkward in spite of her advantage in rank and experience. Her black and whites were obviously not tailor-made. She did not have the expense allowance from a family trust that some officers enjoyed.

She returned his salute, painfully aware of the way her dress jacket rode up and the tightness of the sleeves. She tried to ignore the feeling that seemed to steal up on her with every new posting: that she was simply masquerading as an officer and soon would be found out.

“You have the advantage of me, Lieutenant . . .?”

He stared at her blankly for a second, amplifying her sense of dislocation and fragile pretense. Then he went, “Ah!” and shook his head.

“I’m sorry. You’re not plugged in to shipnet. Bannon, ma’am. Sublieutenant Ian Bannon. I’m officer of the deck today. I’m sorry you’ve been left up here. It should not have happened.”

The young man looked distressed now, and his discomfort made her feel even more awkward.

“I understand, Lieutenant,” she said. “Everything needs to happen at once just before deployment.”

“Even so,” he said, “I apologize.”

They shook hands on her initiative. His eyes flitted briefly to the colored rows of decorations again, but she could forgive that. He wore no decoration beyond the stitched half bar on one collar tab.

“Sorry,” he said when he realized she’d caught him checking out the fruit salad, but he smiled as he apologized. He had a boyish grin that Lucinda imagined had been getting him out of trouble his whole life. He looked practiced in its use. “They told me you fought in the Javan War,” he said, catching sight of her duffel bag under the front row of seats and reaching for it before she could. Lucinda almost told him not to. She preferred to look out for herself. But Bannon held the lesser rank, and it would have been a slight to her if he had not offered. He lifted it carefully in the low grav, testing its mass. Nodding when he had the measure of the load.

“I heard you were promoted in the field,” he said, leading her toward the exit. “From ensign to lieutenant. I missed it all. Signed up to fight but didn’t graduate until it was all over.”

Not looking where he was going, he banged his knee into a chair and cussed, then apologized for cussing. The bag floated up slowly like an improbable novelty balloon.

“Whoa there,” he said, adjusting his grip and stance and nearly tumbling over while he wrestled the duffel bag and his own mass back under control.

“Damn.” He grinned. “Been under ship grav too long.”

He shrugged off the moment in which she would have blushed fiercely. Lucinda found she could not help liking him. But also, she could not let him go on.

“Thank you,” she said, nodding at the bag. “But I went into the war as a baby louie, just like you. And I came out a fully grown LT simply because it went on long enough for my turn to come around.”

Bannon, unconvinced, gave her decorations a theatrically dubious side eye as they exited the bare surroundings of the transit lounge.

“Chief Higo told me you were promoted in the field. And the chief is never wrong. He told me that, too.”

She essayed a small, uncertain smile.

“I would never want to correct a chief petty officer,” she said—and she was not lying—“but my first promotion, from ensign, that wasn’t in the war. It was nothing, really. Just a small engagement on a counterpiracy patrol.”

“Okay.” He grinned as though he knew she was hiding some greater truth. “If you say so.”

They walked down a long, wide corridor. The passageway curved into the body of the rock and twisted like an elongated strand of DNA. She could feel their descent in the deck’s slope under her feet and the increasing pull of spin grav. There were no more portholes to the surface, only screens carrying g-data feeds and imagery from around the base. At first they passed no other personnel, but the traffic in automats and bot trains was moderate to busy, and once a Flotilla-class Combat Intellect floated past. They saluted the black ovoid lozenge. It pulsed in acknowledgment, turning briefly purple, before a female voice said, “Lieutenant Hardy, Lieutenant Bannon, good day to you both.”

The Intellect drifted on serenely.

They watched it disappear around the twisting curvilinear passage.

“Those guys,” said Bannon, shaking his head. “So chill.”

The corridor spiraled down for another five minutes. Lucinda’s duffel bag grew visibly heavy in her colleague’s hand. She did not so much make conversation as ride it downslope. Bannon, unlike her, wasn’t shy about talking about himself. By the time they stood in a secure reception bay, enjoying the one Earth-standard grav provided by the spin and the base’s mass generator, she knew all about Bannon’s family (wealthy but not ennobled), his service (just beginning), and the ship’s command group (pretty chill except for . . .).

“Except for this guy,” he muttered out the corner of his mouth.

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The Cruel Stars 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous 4 days ago
Nicely done space warfare story, with interesting main plot and subplots. The characters are well developed and in a few instances quite excentric. Good shoot 'em up with no clear direction as to the outcome until near the end. I hope this is part of a multi book storyline so I can see what happens to the primary characters.
HannahMVestal 3 months ago
Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read The Cruel Stars in exchange for an honest review. I was eager to read this book, as a science fiction nerd, and as a fan of space travel. However, once I started reading the book, I realized that this book was not all I was expecting it to be. I discovered quickly that I did not connect to any of the five main characters at all. They were uninteresting, or bratty, or simply one-dimensional in character. I struggled to care about the story because of this. Maybe The Cruel Stars would be appealing to someone else. I hope so, As for me, I wasn’t a fan.
Anonymous 3 months ago
reminds me of a turbocharged e e doc Smith. Coruscating space battles and exotic weapons. many a nod to the classics as well. endearing characters made this a great read. hopefully the first of a trilogy.
Anonymous 3 months ago
I'm a huge Science Fiction fan and particularly love books that take place in space or on different planets. Throw in a dangerous enemy and some strong characters, and you've created a book tat is right up  my alley. At least in theory. I did enjoy The Cruel Stars and there were plenty of parts I thought were great, but overall, I was a little disappointed in this one.  One thing that threw me off right away was the fact that there were quite a few different perspectives, but no real connection between them. Of course, later it all came together and made sense. But at first, I had a hard time feeling invested in each character's situation because it all seemed so disconnected and some of the situations weren't particularly interesting for me. There were a few perspectives I immediately enjoyed, however, so that gave me the push I needed to keep reading until the dots began to connect. Even then, there were some characters I didn't feel as invested in. But at least once I understood the plot better, I could see why they were present.  But one thing I really appreciated the world building in this book. I was so impressed with Birmingham's ability to create a unique and well-developed universe with such a rich history. I would have liked a few more details about some things, but for the most part I thought the worlds and people created were filled with such rich details. I feel like I could step right into this world.  Overall, I enjoyed The Cruel Stars, but not as much as  I was hoping. I still think it's worth reading though, especially if you love action-packed space operas. There is a lot to love about this book.
Craig1954 4 months ago
Thank you Netgalley for the opportunity to read and give an honest review.. The story starts with numerous chapters devoted to the situations of various groups that will eventually be fighting the Sturm. The whole story revolves around the perfect human 'Sturm' who are out to eliminate any modified humans thoughout the galaxy. The are subtle and direct comparisons to Nazi /German attempts to eradicate any but the perfect Aryan race. The story makes perfect sense the longer you stick with it.
Anonymous 4 months ago
One of Birmingham's best! I've been following Birmingham's works for the better part of a decade, and I've been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard it was going to be released. I received a hardcopy and tore into it immediately. The work bears all of Birmingham's trademarks; fast paced action, believable characters, and dark humor. I didn't have any trouble getting into his world or keeping characters straight; each has his or her own voice, set of circumstances, and personality. I think he did a fine job of integrating his various POVs into a seamless whole, the plot moved along nicely and led to an explosive (literally) finish. Highly recommend for lovers of space operas; this book was a top-notch read. "The Cruel Stars" is intended as the kick-off for a new trilogy and universe. I have just finished it and I eagerly look forward to the next installment! If you're not familiar with Birmingham's work, check out this book and then consider his "Axis of Time" or "Dave Hooper" trilogy. Excellent read.
Alex-TheQuilltoLive 4 months ago
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 c
Karen_Benson 5 months ago
The Cruel Stars is a military sci-fi space opera along the lines of The Expanse meets Altered Carbon and once I figured out who was who, I really enjoyed it. In the first chapters we get the POVs of 5 interesting characters: Lucinda, who ships out to her newest assignment on the warship Defiant; Professor McLennan (my personal favorite), the gruff curmudgeon astroarcheologist/historian; Sephina the space pirate (along with her motley lovable crew); 12 year old Princess Alessia; and prisoner Corporal Booker who was on death row about to be deleted. The 6th POV is Admiral Strom, commander of the Sturm whose intent is to wipe out all humans with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. At first it was a bit confusing as to who was who and how each person was connected, but it didn’t take long to come to the realization that the 5 “good guys” storylines all connect. I really did adore all 5 heroes. And yes, the future sci-fi lingo was over my head for much of the book. But somewhere in there I did start to catch on and sort out what I needed to. All of it? Nope. But definitely enough to enjoy the story. The ending was very satisfying and seems like there could be a sequel. I’m completely invested in these characters so would love to see this story continue. More, please! *Thank you so much to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine/Del Rey Books for the advance copy!*
thegeekishbrunette 5 months ago
Hello, this review will go up on Instagram, goodreads, and my blog all under the name thegeekishbrunette. The review will be posted on August 15th and links will be added when they are live. Title: The Cruel Stars Author: John Birmingham Genre: Sci-Fi Publication Date: Aug. 20th, 2019 eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley. All opinions are my own. Synopsis: "The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of "species purists" intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true "Human Republic," the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong. The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity's defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind's only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy's only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L'trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all--or die trying. These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed." My Review: Here's the thing, I don't know if it was just me but I just couldn't get into this book like I wanted. The synopsis sounded fantastic and the cover is amazing but it just didn't live up to the ideals in my head. I am usually one that loves multiple point of views but it was hard to follow along in this particular book. I didn't find myself connecting with the characters or feeling interested in their lives or their quest to save earth. It didn't feel like they had much character development. The characters were just thrown at us from the beginning with not a lot to go off of. The plot was interesting for the most part and had a few surprises I wasn't expecting. That is always a plus. We get to glimpse at the invaders ideology and what drives them. To them, they are just doing what they think is right. Although there is quite a bit of action packed scenes, at times the pacing slowed down. This also happens more often in the later part of the book as well. One thing I did enjoy was the comic relief. Even though things are going wrong and there is a lot of gore to be seen, the characters find time to joke or mention Lord of the Rings. It adds a nice touch and makes the story a bit lighter at times. Overall, I wish I had liked it more but I know that others will enjoy this book.