#304 – The Imposters by Toby Frost

Ten years ago (May 2013) I wrote my first book review for KODT Magazine. Now, 100 reviews later, I’m revisiting that author and his new book set in the same universe.

Space Captain Smith is a series of six science fiction adventure comedies by Toby Frost. They take the Flashman type of character and turn it on its head, all while parodying every major SF genre out there, set within a grand British Space Empire. It’s a great series that I highly recommend.

Recently, Toby Frost revisited this world, but in a new way, and with new characters. Instead of focusing on the ripping yard adventures of a small starship crew in an epic war fought across the galaxy, this book focuses on the more subtle (sometimes) aspect of the war machine, the shadowy department known as the Service.

The war against the Ghast and its genocidal allies is winding down, and the Service now finds itself in danger of obsolescence, as is one of its top operatives, an android named Helen Frampton.

Her job at the moment is to help a former Service agent who has lost his memory, Richard Cleaver, after being confronted and almost killed by a gang of ruthless criminals. It seems these criminals are looking for the score of a lifetime, and Richard is the key to recovering it… Except he doesn’t remember how or why.

If I had to give a nutshell comparison of the scenario, I’d say “Think the 1960s British TV show, The Avengers except Emma Peel is a lethal Mary Poppins and John Steed has amnesia.”

There is a strong sense of retro SF to this universe, though The Imposters doesn’t play up this element quite the way the Space Captain Smith did. But you will find anachronistic elements thrown in alongside advanced technology, making for a unique environment.

What’s interesting about this book is how it both feels in line with the Space Captain Smith series while also being very much its own thing. The Smith books always had an element of parody in it, with obvious and subtle nods to everything from War of the Worlds to The Matrix (not to mention The Chipmunks, Enid Blyton, and My Little Pony).

The Imposters, on the other hand, doesn’t stray too far into parody, instead using the universe already built and working within it. That’s not to say there isn’t humour, however. It is constantly amusing even when it’s taking itself seriously, such as when Helen gives driving directions like a Google Sat Nav.

In many ways it’s hard to talk about Richard Cleaver’s character, because his journey is one of finding out who he is. His skills remain intact, but what he was doing as a Service operative and why he was targeted for death remains a mystery until near the end of the book.

Helen, on the other hand, provides an interesting glimpse of computer intelligence. On the surface, that Sat Nav reference seems like just a joke, but when you read scenes from her perspective, you see it’s also representative of who she is and how she thinks.

If Mary Poppins experienced life like Data from Star Trek, you might just have Helen Frampton. She is logical, and she is aware of how being logical can be as limiting as it is efficient. She has interests, likes and dislikes, and never comes across as just a walking computer.

And yet I always had this desire for her to become more. Like she was missing out on life somehow. I expect she would gently scold me for saying such a thing, pointing out she is perfectly happy being exactly who she is. And perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

In both characters’ cases, there is a theme of personal identity at play. What makes us human (even if not literally so)? Even the question of memory in relation to identity comes into play, not just with Mr Cleaver, but Ms Frampton as well.

But a good adventure is often defined by its villains as much as its heroes, and Frost makes his band of criminals engaging—particularly its leader, Sally Anne Matlock, who is ruthless, and yet not inhuman. She’s quite human, just a particularly bad one who only looks out for herself.

And yet the way she rationalizes her behaviour seems almost reasonable, given her circumstances, right down to why she does or doesn’t want particular people killed. She always remains an intimidating character, and you never truly feel what I’d call sympathy for her, but you do understand her. Bottom line, she’s not a moustache-twirling villain tying people to railroad tracks.

I don’t know if Toby intends to make this a continuing series like Space Captain Smith, but if he does, I’ll be along for the right just like before!

Available on Amazon and other fine bookstores

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