Space Captain Smith – Toby Frost (Review)

I came across A Game of Battleships in a second-hand bookshop a long time ago, and thought it looked interesting. However, A Game of Battleships is not the first book of its series, and I really dislike starting at any point in a series than the start – I know that any book is meant to give enough information to be enjoyed on its own, but I still find it irritating; I worry I’m missing things, or that I’d enjoy it more if I’d already formed an acquaintance with the characters.

I bought it for someone who has no such scruples, but didn’t read it myself – I vaguely looked around for the first one, but failed to find it, and the series slipped from my mind. Occasionally, I would remember some vague detail about it, but never enough to actually track it down.

Finally, I spent a while googling “space British Empire” and “science fiction lemmings”, and this gave me the name of the author again. I bought the first book – Space Captain Smith, and at last got to see if the series lived up to its concept.

I do like the concept – I am all about re-imaginings of the British Empire and Napoleonic warfare. I will happily read anything that includes vague analogues for muskets or Regency manners. This book has all of that in spades. In the far future, the British Empire stands, stretching between the stars. The technology has been updated, but everything else is much the same as expected. Savage colonials are rather more non-human, ships move from planet to planet, not port to port, but otherwise all is the same.

Space Captain Smith concerns the adventures of the eponymous character. He’s a Flashman-esque buffoon with a bit more courage, incompetent rather than craven. He talks like Biggles, which I find equal parts irritating and nostalgic. As a child, I loved Biggles. With a rag-tag crew of misfits and a rickety ship, he is sent across the galaxy to retrieve a hippy woman before catastrophic consequences ensue.

It’s not a serious book – Frost aims for comic science fiction, in the same vein as Douglas Adams and (across the genre divide) Terry Pratchett. The books are stuffed with quips and references, and the various different space stations and alien planets tend to be built around a core joke.

It’s one of the hardest things to write well, I’d argue, and comedy is deeply tedious when done poorly. Frost isn’t bad at it, but it isn’t always effective – certain sections and details are inane more than amusing. It’s a problem I find common to comic fantasy/science fiction writers (with the obvious exception of the genres’ titans) – they just aren’t consistently skilled enough to keep the whole book at the same level of quality.

That’s not a criticism of Space Captain Smith particularly – Frost is, again, not worse than the average for the genre. It’s just that the average for the genre isn’t amazing. No book can be funny all the time, and not that many authors can proficiently manage the change in tone necessary to vary it with more serious scenes.  Space Captain Smith tries to be funny almost all of the time, and it doesn’t succeed.

That’s a harsh condemnation, and should be softened – at points, the book is very funny. It has moments of genuine humour and originality. It just can’t always pull it off.

One side-character deserves particular mention – Captain Smith’s savage alien friend, Suruk. Suruk brings a fresh and homicidal perspective to the novel, and I found the deadpan insistence on his warrior culture in the face of pretty much anything to be one of the consistently entertaining ideas in Space Captain Smith.

Overall, it’s okay. Space Captain Smith is a competent book, it’s occasionally very funny. It’s also in an incredibly difficult genre to write a good book in, so competent doesn’t quite map to competent in other genres. If you like comic fantasy/sci-fi, go for it. If you tend to find slapstick annoying, possibly give this one a miss.

The author’s website is here, and somewhat confusingly designed. Buy the book here.

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