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Ripping Yarns in the British Space Empire,
This review is from: Space Captain Smith (Paperback)
You might call Isambard Smith the Anti-Flashman, though the covers at first seem similar. But look closely at that cover. Does Smith have a scantly clad woman draped around his leg? No, he's got a dead body at his feet. Proper.
The Space Captain Smith series is set in a future where the British Empire has risen once more, and with it an aesthetic throwback to late colonial England. The architecture is New Gothic, ships are designed with brasswork cogs and levers, and while the computers have normal displays, numbers are often displayed with rotating dials and a handy ticker-tape that prints out relevant information.
Smith is about as different to Flashman as you can get. He's not a womanizer, a coward, or a bully for one (well, three) thing(s). About the only thing they have in common is a decent mustache. But Smith isn't a larger than life hero without flaws. Outside of a good fight he's downright awkward, especially around members of the opposite sex. But he also embodies everything we're meant to see in the British Space Empire - noble and refined, with its citizens carrying a stiff upper lip and not dealing with things like "feelings" in public. Dreadnought Diplomacy is alive and well. When one speaks of "civilizing" an alien culture, it refers to how the iron fist is used if talking sensibly to the silly buggers didn't work.
Smith's long time friend is a Morlock (or M'Lak) called Suruk the Slayer (Doom Purveyor, Son of Agshad Nine-Swords, Grandson of Urgar the Miffed). The M'Lak look vaguely like a thin version of the Predator but their personality better fits the "noble savage" archetype from classic adventure literature like King Solomon's Mines.
To act as a foil to Smith and Suruk are two women: Pollyanna Carveth, a fugitive sex toy masquerading as the ship's pilot, and Rhianna Mitchell, a New-New Age hippie herbalist from the American Free States (think California). Despite the fact she is so unlike Smith - or perhaps because of it - he can't help but fall head over heals for Rhianna, nor can he help but blow almost every opportunity he has to score with her.
Like Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, parody and satire infuses much of the novels. Frost pokes fun at the Martians from H.G. Wells, the trenchcoats and sunglasses in The Matrix, and everything in between. While these parodies sometimes stick out as a little obvious in the first novel, by the second Frost has found his rhythm and the references are more seamlessly interwoven with the narrative.
Unlike Pratchett, which generally has the heroes avoid lethal violence unless absolutely necessary, the Smith books are almost gleefully violent and action packed. It's not as deep or philosophical as Pratchett, but then it's not meant to be. It's a ripping yarn, and it delivers both on the action front and the comedy. While Pratchett always puts a smile on my face, he rarely makes me laugh out loud. Frost on the other hand has me burst out frequently.
The backdrop for the Smith books is that of impending war. The Empire on the cusp of invasion by a genocidal ant-like species known as the Ghast. These fanatical minions and their ruthless leaders seek only the death of all humans, and that's not just human propaganda. In fact, the Ghast's own World War Two style propaganda posters makes their goal abundantly clear, as no doubt do their cookbooks.
But not all of the danger in the universe comes from aliens. The Democratic Republic of New Eden, a small militant group of colonies that broke away after the fall of the Empire of Man, is pretty much none of the things its name describes. It is neither democratic nor a republic, and its territory could hardly be considered an Eden given that it's ideals are about as old as you can get without bashing rocks together. Edenites represent the worst we have to offer - sexist, racist, intolerant religious fanatics whose beliefs incorporates a mishmash of all the various hate-smite-everything-beard-wearing versions from Earth's history.
Plot wise Space Captain Smith deals with Isambard and his crew trying to escort Rhianna from the United Free States space station New Francisco into British Empire territory, and the Ghast want to capture her at any cost. In the process they have to escape the clutches of a Ghast battleship, hide on a planet recently conquered by New Eden and then free it in order to escape. To add to their problems a universe-weary android assassin (who dreams of electric sheep) is trying to track down and terminate their pilot Polly.
You can be assured of lots of laughs, tons of movie and book references, awkward romance, and a jolly good kick up old Gertie's backside. I'm particularly impressed how Frost has avoided the temptation of making the battles like an episode of G.I. Joe (where lots of shots are fired yet nobody gets hurt) just because it's a comedy.
I'm looking forward to more from this ongoing series.