God Emperor of Didcot by Toby Frost (Chronicles of Isambard Smith: Book 2)

Tea... not just a stimulating and refreshing beverage, but crucially the British Space Empire's prime source of "moral fibre". Without moral fibre, the Empire's forces would lose heart, weaken and eventually collapse leaving Earth and her allies at the mercy of their enemies. Most of the Empire's tea is grown on one world: Urn, a planet in the Didcot system. To paraphrase a cliché, for the Empire to continue to prevail, the tea *must* flow. Naturally when a mad cult leader (is there any other type?) overthrows the government of Urn, the threat to tea supplies is both immediate and far-reaching. Smith soon discovers that the self-proclaimed God Emperor of Didcot is merely the pawn of his old adversaries: the Edenites and the dreaded Ghasts, who are intent on destroying the tea harvests in order to bring the Empire to it's knees for their own nefarious purposes. With scant supplies and resources at their disposal, Smith and his motley crew find themselves embroiled in a desperate situation: they must rally what friends and allies they can muster to fight a guerrilla war to overcome the invaders and defeat the self-proclaimed God Emperor of Didcot .... for the sake of the Empire!

"Space Captain Smith" introduced us to the principal characters comprising the crew of the British Space Empire vessel "John Pym". "God Emperor of Didcot" adds little new to the crews' established traits and foibles yet still manages to flesh them out further. This arrangement works well for the reader since Frost is more confident and we plunge straight into the storyline without preamble. Fans of "Space Captain Smith" will be happy to learn that essentially they are in for more of the same. There are still sufficient sci-fi references to satisfy your inner anorak, though I found this book had fewer outright comedic moments than the first. Happily these were traded for a story with more depth and better execution and for me this was a definite improvement over the first.

"God Emperor of Didcot" introduced two story elements that I particularly enjoyed. First we are introduced to Suruk's family. This scenario provides a perfect environment to explore the (dubious) benefits bestowed by the Empires' manifesto of "civilising barbarians". Poor Suruk's acute embarrassment at being a "fish out of water" amongst his own kin neatly illustrates the power of the stick-and-carrot methodology the British Space Empire (and it's real world analogue) employs: disenfranchising a whole race within one lifetime through the use of desirable "civilised" incentives. Now genteel, tasteful and civilised, the M'lak relatives provide a superb comedic counterpoint to the persona of Suruk the barbaric killer. Yet we quickly learn that whilst these traits are usually desirable, they ironically prove detrimental to the Empire's current plight since the M'lak have also lost their taste for violence - and it is this trait that the intrepid adventurers are seeking. It is only through Suruk entreating his kin to join their cause and rediscover their lost honour that they rediscover their sense of identity (though they don't eschew all the Empire's trappings) and hence the future of the Empire is secured. As an unexpected consequence of their encounter, seeds of doubt are sewn in Suruk's mind and he begins to question his own sense of identity and his future direction.

Secondly we are introduced to the Deepspace Operations Group or D.O.G. This is a commando unit so highly trained and elitist that there are only 5 members, yet these 5 have the reputation of fighting like 100 warriors. The main pleasure from the encounter with the D.O.G. is the introduction to Wainscott, their leader. Clearly this character is a deadly force to be reckoned with, equally as clear is the fact he is borderline certifiably mad. The combination of the two makes for a volatile but interesting character: imagine Rambo in shorts wrestling a hat-stand or a barrel full of monkeys with machine-guns ..... and you have Wainscott. Hopefully this isn't the first encounter with him as he is a rich vein waiting to be tapped.

Of some disappointment was the encounter with the eponymous "God-Emperor" himself. At the risk of revealing too much, here was a puppet character on more than one level: not only was he a front for the Ghasts, but beyond providing some token dictatorial presence and a pretext for (an admittedly amusing) title for the novel, he was totally dispensable to the story narrative. I thought he was going to earn his God-Emperor title by thoroughly playing the despot and possibly be offered an ultimate shot at redemption or something, but the character was wasted. Perhaps he was meant to be nothing more than an ironic twist having a totally ineffectual character named as "God-Emperor". But it didn't quite work for me since a character deemed important enough to be used in the title ought to be pivotal in the story itself. Likewise the opportunity to actually incorporate the stranded telepathic children into the storyline was lost since they provided nothing more than a brief diversion from the main narrative and a token pretext for the existence of the God-Emperor. Still only a couple of niggles - more lost opportunities for enrichment than elements that ruin the read.

The bottom line is this is still an enjoyable light read for a sci-fi comedy geek. Toby Frost writes books that seem to fill a specific niche: that is books for the commuter or the frequently interrupted (system administrators I'm looking at you). You can pick up his books, read a few pages and put them down again without losing the thread of the story and still enjoy an amusing diversion. As I said previously, whilst the comedy elements are less frequent than in "Space Captain Smith", the story is stronger overall and I felt it was a slightly more positive experience for that.

8/10 Less comedy but a stronger story make for an undemanding yet enjoyable read.

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