Book Review: Starship Grifters, by Robert Kroese

by | May 26, 2014 | Reviews

Rating: Hot Princess

Rating: Hot Princess

Damn, I laughed.

I know that’s probably not the most professional way to start a book review, but, I think it’s more important to be honest than it is to follow protocol. This book is just freaking hilarious. The funny thing is (okay, the book is the funny thing, but you know what I mean) the whole story is woven together by total absurdity, yet it totally works. It’s like slapstick meets equivocation meets, well, as many logical fallacies as can possibly be combined to make the most implausible situation plausible. And yet it this book, this author, carries it off. 

So that said, I realize before I just drool over it, some form and protocol is probably in order. So, I shall slow down and start from the beginning. Ahem. This is my book review of Starship Grifters (A Rex Nihilo Adventure), by Robert Kroese. I enjoyed the living crap out of it.

Image used with permission of Robert Kroese

Image used with permission of Robert Kroese

Kroese sent me a request to review the book a few weeks back (or his people at 47 North sent it to me—I’m too lazy to move my hand all the way to my mouse and click to find the email right now—but someone sent it to me). Normally I just say no to all of those “review my book” requests, because, well, being honest, I get terrible, unreadable books a thousand times more often than I get one that is readable. And that’s just one that is readable, not great or even just okay. However, for Starship Grifters, the teaser line in the email he/they sent was actually funny, and because it was clever, I decided to say, “Sure send it.” I think I was drunk at the time.

So, anyway, long story short: I got it, and damn, I laughed.

Quick scenario: the story is about a guy named Rex Nihilo and his robot, Sasha. Sasha is the one telling the story, and Sasha makes a great straight man … err, straight woman.  Straight bot? Anyway, something straight, and she plays off of Rex’s total ridiculousness. Rex thinks he’s brilliant and courageous and a great gambler and, well, just so smart and excellent. Unfortunately, he is completely deluded.

Fortunately, however, he’s got Sasha. And perhaps even more fortunately, the universe is populated by even more ridiculous entities than Rex, including big incompetent bureaucracies, governments, warmongering states, rebel states, religious groups and more, all of which are unfathomably inept, and all populated by hilarious and brilliantly off-the-wall characters. The whole universe is as grossly flawed as Rex, and the question is not who is the most competent to win in the end, but who is the least incompetent.

To set the plot in general, there’s a spaceship and some gambling debts and planet with theoretical cloaking device that nobody knows if its real or not because, well, it might be cloaked … so, I mean … maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, and you don’t find out till the end. There are layers of betrayal and whose lying to whom and who is double dealing whom. But that’s all the plot I’m going to give you. I wish I could do more, and maybe that’s a piss-poor plot treatment (no, it’s definitely a piss poor plot treatment), but I don’t want to spoil anything. And it is a pretty simple plot, really, for how convoluted it is and how random (by clever authorial design) it seems.

But all that said, the books charm is how goddamn funny it is. And to prove it, I am going to give away two lines of dialogue, taken from super early in the book, chapter three. Those lines will follow this spoiler alert warning.


Set up:  Rex and Sasha are on their way to try to do some infiltration. Rex has just proposed this really terrible, half-baked idea for how he’s going to fake his identity. Then Sasha—voice of reason—explains why that strategy is not going to work. Below is what follows her shooting down his idea:

“You know what your problem is, Sasha?” Rex said. “You always want to have every little detail worked out in advance. You’ve got to leave some room for improvisation.”

“My concern, sir, is that you’ve given such a wide berth to improvisation that you’ve left no room for planning.”

I laughed so freaking hard at that.


So anyway, that’s just a tiny slice of how witty Kroese is. The book is full of that stuff. I think there’s a bit more in the first half than the second as the story starts to play out, but I was giggling out loud all the way through.

And no, I’m not trying to suggest that the book is perfect. Anyone who has read my reviews before knows I try to not be a big, fawning fanboy of anything. I try to be straight with anyone who happens along to read these things, even if any book review is all opinion anyway. So, same goes for this one, and I will be honest and explain why I’ve gone with the Hot Princess rating for Starship Grifters rather than the almost impossible to achieve Epic Dragon.

I think if this book has a flaw, which all books do (except mine of course, which are all unadulterated brilliance, etc.), it’s that I wondered in a few places where its heart was.

I think the story does a clever job of prodding at the edges of how our culture works. While it is delightfully insane and hilarious, beneath that is a commentary on the sort of pointlessness of our society in ways. The credit bureau and the prisons and the governments. The religions and the banks. It seems to examine the randomness of our lives and of our outcomes as individuals. Yet it also, through the existence of these institutions, suggests the opposite as well, that it isn’t random at all. That there are forces at work, be they empire-building governments or churches or even Space (the divine force that is mentioned throughout) and we’re all being pushed about. Order and disorder at once.

So there is a dash of that kind of thing in it. But just a dash. And I think that because it is a genre piece, Kroese may have felt compelled to rein that in. Maybe he didn’t want to weight down the comedy. Or maybe he didn’t want it in at all. Maybe I’m just projecting that into it and there’s no thoughts whatever on that outside of my head. I have no idea. But as I went along and got past the halfway point or so, I admit to wondering what the point was. The literary side of my reader brain (the snobby, douchehole part some might say), was like, “What really matters to these people in this universe? What makes them real rather than merely clever silhouettes?” It’s like, maybe the story was just a little light on essential humanity.

However, that said, I’ll be the first to admit, that’s not what the book was likely meant to be—or at least says me, and WTF do I know? Having some poser literary douchehole say, “Hey, where’s the humanity in this slapstick book of comedy?” is probably a lot like saying, “Where’s the nutritional value in a Happy Meal?” Nobody eats a Happy Meal for the damn nutritional value; you eat it for them freaking awesome chicken nuggets, that sweet cup of soda and, by God, give me my freaking toy! It’s fun. You want nutrition, get a salad.

So, basically, even when I try to find a flaw in this novel, I have to dig one out by being too damn serious and dramatic. Which sort of negates my one complaint as a complaint anyway. Nobody is going to read a book with that sort of throw-back 50’s look cover that was put on Starship Grifters seeking the depth of a heavy, plodding Tolstoy yarn (lol … I just wrote “Tolstoy yarn”). This novel is funny, and should be approached only by those looking for a damn good reason to laugh.

I know I did.