With His Majesty’s Starship, Ben Jeapes makes his fictional debut in the long form, and it’s a volume bursting with fun and energy. Written for a publisher specialising in fiction for young adults, this is nevertheless a more mature offering than the Chippendale abortion [the previous book reviewed in this column]. Jeapes writes with a balanced pen, and nothing seems forced.

An invitation is made to the good people of Earth to share a part of the universe with a race of intelligent (and beautifully delineated) aliens. Mike Gilmore is instructed to put together a team of spacefaring professionals, but he must also take a headstrong prince, who is not all that he seems to be; aside from the fact that he’s foolishly reluctant to strap himself down just before the ship is “boosting at one point three gees,” he also secretes industrial-sized explosive weapons on the ship, without the captain’s consent or knowledge. (How he does so is plausible).

Jeapes’s antihuman satire is of a light touch. When the alien makes his report about the crew, it is done with little malice. Sure enough, Jeapes includes the odd remark about how awful we all are, but these examples are snacks, rather than the three-course meals in Chippindale’s book: “they make every effort to hide the truth about their past: the fact that they had had wars, polluted their planet, wiped out species and so forth.” Need it be said that the consequences of the merger are not all pleasant? On board a different vessel altogether is a homicidal loon with a bigger axe than usual to grind; there are those explosives, which the God of Plot has decreed should be used at some point; and there is an examination of the basic human tendency to ruin situations while on the road to comprehension.
David Mathew, Interzone, May 1999

Catapulted suddenly from command of an obscure patrol ship to command of the starship Ark Royal, Michael Gilmore must carry the Crown Prince of UK1 to the conference with the aliens that will decide which nation will be chosen to jointly develop a new planet. But in an international interstellar interspecies negotiation with the future of the race at stake there is skulduggery to be expected from all quarters. The fate of both species depends on a simple man’s ability to see through the web of lies and deceit, to know when to fight and when to talk, when to obey and when to rebel.

I didn’t have time for this book; I was revising for an exam. Foolishly I took a break and read the first few chapters. As a thriller, gripping, as science fiction, fascinating. Cunning twists in the plot hurl the reader unexpectedly from one pupil-dilating crisis to another. Make sure you have time for this because once you have started you can’t stop.
Trapped in the Real World

After reading the first 50 pages, there are several words and phrases which spring to mind regarding His Majesty’s Starship — bad first attempt, crap, not worth the read, put-downable. But sometimes perseverance pays off.

In fact, although it takes a little getting into His Majesty’s Starship is eminently readable. A veritable fount of plot, characterisation and intrigue, with some astoundingly original ideas, it is definitely worth continuing beyond the first few chapters. Scholastic, who publish the award-winning Philip Pullman, have hit on another winner with Ben Jeapes. If he can continue in this vein, he should be punching out bestsellers very soon.

His Majesty’s Starship introduces the First Breed, a race of intelligent quadrupeds who issue an invitation to Earth to join them in what appears to be a colony venture. Every nation supplies a ship, with the British hope contained in the HMSS Ark Royal. However, very little is what it seems and the Ark’s captain, Michael Gilmore, has to contend with space battles, kidnapping and assassination in the midst of his originally simple mission — and all of this ten thousand light years from Earth, his transport home at the mercy of aliens. These are refreshingly … well … alien, and the idea of an exiled British monarchy will undoubtedly appeal to some of the treasonously-minded.

All that aside, His Majesty’s Starship may not deliver a plot to rival The Oblivion in its twists and turns, but I would defy anyone to call it dull.
Lijana Howe, SFX, June 1999

One hundred and fifty years into the future, we are back in the Navy. HMS Ark Royal is part of a peaceful delegation to a distant star system in response to an invitation from benign visiting aliens: “We have a planet we would like to share with you.”

Naturally, suspicion and paranoia abound. No one entirely trusts the aliens; the delegates mistrust each other, being representatives of competing terrestrial federations; one of them, the Machiavellian megalomaniac Krishnamurthy of the Confederation of South East Asia (Greater India, as he sees it) is planning a coup.

His ship, along with all the others, is heavily armed in direct contravention of the spirit of the enterprise. Our hero, Captain Gilmore, a man who lives in terror of being promoted above his capabilities but with reserves of tactical creativity, redeems the mission – assisted by his trusty crew.

This is all solid traditional space fiction of the kind we see far too seldom now. It would be a pleasure in itself, so assured and convincing is the writing, but Jeapes has much more to offer than a good yarn.

As he points out, aliens are not made-over “humans with funny make-up. ..aliens are, by definition, alien”. His own aliens are extremely other. They are physically unattractive to humans (who call them Rusties) and their efforts to communicate verbally are obstructed by lack of shared nuance or body language. Even their names transliterate to meaningless approximations – Verbatim Bald, Leaf Ruby.

It is a testament to Jeapes’s skill that the hermaphrodite quadruped, Arm Wild, with its flaky skin and four nostrils, emerges as the most engaging character in the whole novel. But the most glorious conceit is the space station UK-1, last bolt-hole of the exiled House of Windsor, ruled by the entrepreneurial King Richard and his unlovely son, Prince James.
Jan Mark, TES, March 12 1999

The nations of the Earth have received an invitation to tender for a joint development project. This invitation comes from the Rusties, the first alien race to make contact, whose rules must be followed but whose motives are obscure. Martin Gilmore, a moderately successful spaceship captain, is authorised to command the vessel from UK1, the United Kingdom’s bid in this race.

Ben Jeapes’s first novel appears to read familiar ground but closer examination shows a refreshingly different approach to humanity’s reaction to first contact. Something that Jeapes does extremely well is to chart the varied reactions different nations and individuals have to the possibilities on offer from the Rusties. This is a near future where nations still regard each other suspiciously, where conflict is endemic and different cultures misunderstand each other even within the same nation. Plausible, in other words. The complex politics felt genuine, together with the shifting alliances of self-interest.

The aliens themselves felt familiar, although I couldn’t pin this feeling down. It wasn’t a physical resemblance but possibly their culture and mindset. The difficulties and possibilities of communication and translation were well-handled.

The novel was tightly plotted. Prince Richard’s unconvincing actions early in the novel proved to be as a result of his hidden agenda; some of the mysteries of the Rusties were explained by later developments, and the historical process which led to the development of a character like Krishnamurthy, though perhaps exaggerated for dramatic effect, was easily within believable bounds.

One slight weakness was perhaps the crucial confusion between ‘Highness’ and ‘Majesty’ that Nichols exhibits enough times for us to believe it when it matters. Did we really need quite this much sign-posting to avoid a “pulled out of the hat” feeling to the climax?

It was refreshing to find a hero lacking in self-confidence, a leader who is not convinced he can lead, who does not become a superman by the end of the book. It was reassuring to have the death of a crew member handled sensitively — it was not the climax of the book but neither was it a ‘red jumper’ death with no repercussions after the initial shock.

The solution to the mystery of the Rusties’ invitation and its underlying purpose is well done, although it is one of those endings that ties everything up so well that it is in danger of undermining some of the earlier confusion and mystery.

Note from author: apart from Gilmore’s first name being Michael, Richard being a king, and the crewman who gets confused between ‘Highness’ and ‘Majesty’ being called Nichol, I think she got the gist of it!