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I'm a sucker for books with clever titles. I've been tricked into purchasing Robert 'Awful' Rankin's novels several times thanks to brilliant titles such as The Witches of Chiswick, and only had the habit vindicated by gems like The Big Over-Easy, and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.
But the splendid cover of Toby Frost's God Emperor of Didcot has been staring down from the shelves at me for months, and I succumbed last week. I have a particular loathing for Frank Herbert's Dune series, and the back cover blurb ('To keep the British Empire fighting, the tea must flow') was brilliantly judged.
Set in a distant future where Britain has rediscovered its Moral Fibre through the copious consumption of tea and built an Empire across space, the book follows the adventures of Captain Isambard Smith. Embroiled in a war against the insectoid Ghasts, Smith is dispatched to the crucial tea supply world, Urn, to quell an uprising of religious fanatics.
His ship is crewed by a savage alien called Suruk the Slayer, a psychic hippy called Rhianna and a re-programmed sex android called Carveth.
Now if all of this sounds to you like the territory of a lame parody novel, you'd be pretty spot on. The broad plot of Dune is skewered, and the rambling narrative frequently takes time out for a lengthy riff on other science-fiction and fantasy classics like Alien, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Village of the Damned, The Famous Five and Lord of the Rings. Polly Carveth supplies a constant stream of poor innuendo, and the opening chapters are a little ropey.
Luckily, there's a real heart to the book beyond mere pastiche. Isambard Smith isn't just a one-dimensional action adventure chap, he's a thoroughbred English gentleman, and probably the greatest English hero I've seen for years. This creates a huge amount of humour. At one point he goes to a casino, takes one look at all the cocktails and demands a pint of mild. When his suspect goes to the lavatory, his sidekick wants to arrest the man. Smith points out 'But we can't go in there together. We're chaps.'
Probably his most endearing feature is the fact that he's hopeless with women. At one point he even considers 'batting for the other side' and decides against it purely because he 'could never get used to all the facial hair'.
There are a few basic problems with the writing. The point of view tends to drift from character to character within scenes, which is always irritating. Once it's done for genuine effect, most of the rest of the time, it seems to be just a bit sloppy, the kind of thing that makes you think it could have done with one last draft to tighten things up a bit. The dialogue is spot on, however.
Although the references to other works can be a little jarring, diverting the plot away from Dune ultimately strengthens it. I felt like I'd read a genuine novel, rather than a mere parody. Not only that, but an exciting page-turning action adventure. Boy's Own Adventures in space.
The idea of a British spacefleet has been seen before, generally being used to poke fun at Star Trek. But Red Dwarf embraced Britain's pub culture, Nick Frost's Hyperdrive chose to celebrate caravan holidays in the rain, where Toby Frost (no relation, I assume) goes straight for an interstellar depiction of the Age of Empire. It's a celebration of the qualities we tend to think made Britain one of the greatest powers the world has ever seen. And it's all down to tea.
I don't actually like tea, and this has caused many people in the past to suspect that I'm not properly British. I did like this book, however. Go. Buy. Read.