Far-future humanity spans the galaxy in corporate monarchies, slaving empires and other polities of variable egalitarianism. These vast distances are spanned by instant wormhole-based communications and ships with more time-consuming warp drives. Citizens of means edit their biological makeups, graft cybernetics to their brains, even remotely back up their consciousnesses and download into new bodies, effectively achieving immortality. But this transhumanism is not agreeable to all. Centuries ago, a fanatical faction of racial purists calling itself the Human Republic attempted to annihilate anyone with body modifications. The Sturm, as the rest of mankind called them, were defeated and exiled into the unknown reaches of Dark Space.
The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham follows five characters through a catastrophic Sturm invasion from Dark Space, which begins with a crippling virus delivered through humanity's communications network and neural implants. Officer Lucinda Hardy becomes commander of the Royal Armadalen Navy's last surviving ship when her captain and XO are turned into slobbering cannibals. Booker3, a jailed freedom fighter on the verge of being deleted, is spared that fate by a Sturm attack on his habitat. Alessia, a young princess of the Montanblanc Corporation, must go on the run when her planet is invaded. Sephina L'trel, leader of a Firefly-like band of rogues, gets caught up in the Sturm attack during an unrelated firefight. Finally, Frazer McLennan, the admiral who first defeated the Sturm hundreds of years and several bodies ago, must once again combat his old enemy. Birmingham (the Axis of Time series) expertly weaves these plots together while building an intriguing world. The Cruel Stars is a strong start to a promising series. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer