RogerBW's Blog

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor 13 October 2018

2013 science fiction, first in the Chronicles of St Mary's series. St Mary's Institute for Historical Research is rather more hands-on in their observation of history than anyone suspects; Dr Madeleine Maxwell is their newest recruit.

Like Full Dark House, this book almost demands comparison with Blackout/All Clear – but while that one did so for its London Blitz setting, this one does it by being about time-travelling historians. But these historians do actually make notes on what they're observing; more to the point, they seem to enjoy their job, even though an awful lot of them get killed doing it.

He frowned. 'It's a dangerous and difficult job. There's no support structure for what we do. We have to look after each other, hence the welcoming committee; to show support and to talk them down.'

'Down from what?'

'From whatever happened to the crew on this assignment.'

'How do you know something happened?'

He sighed. 'They're historians. Something always happens.'

The book follows suit: among the main characters there's a constant sense of fun, of "wow, we're actually getting to see real history", in spite of the danger. And all this happens at the same time as some much more serious business, the opening shots of what's clearly going to be a time war, with at least three factions and quite possibly more.

(But this isn't one of those plastic-time settings, either. As far as we can tell from this book, time is inflexible, and what happened is what always happened… but what you don't yet know about is still susceptible to change as far as you're concerned. This is a relatively rare kind of setting for a time travel story, and since the series runs to ten books so far I'll be interested to see how Taylor develops it. I very much enjoyed the idea that the easiest way for the universe to reject temporal change about to be caused by a historian is to kill the historian by "accident".)

Regular soft explosions from R & D really didn't help much and, one memorable day, Professor Rapson put his head round the door and said, mildly, 'If it's not too much bother, may I recommend you evacuate the building right now, please.'

Chief Farrell paused from revealing the secrets of the universe and said, 'Right, everyone out. Immediately. No, not the door, Miss Nagley, use the windows. Move!'

That said, it's not perfect. The narrative is surprisingly bitty, being more a series of events than a single story; there are large un-heralded gaps, and a sudden mention of "I'd known him four years" rather than the few months that it feels like. Characterisation is fairly light, though it felt consistent to me. Max rarely seems to get sent to anything involving her own specialist period. But even with all these problems, there's more life and enjoyment here than a dozen Connie Willis books could muster. (And at the same time the writing is much tighter and less overwrought.)

Followed by A Symphony of Echoes.

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See also:
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

Series: Chronicles of St Mary's | Next in series: When a Child is Born/Roman Holiday/Christmas Present/Ships and Stings And Wedding Rings/The Very First Damned Thing/The Great St Mary's Day Out/My Name is Markham/A Perfect Storm

  1. Posted by Gus at 05:08pm on 18 October 2018

    "there's more life and enjoyment here than a dozen Connie Willis books could muster. (And at the same time the writing is much tighter and less overwrought.)"

    Had I not been forewarned about Connie Willis, this would have put me on my guard. It is perhaps because Jodi Taylor came to me so highly recommended by an, I thought, reliable source that I found this book a bucket of disappointments. Characterisation felt sketchy and unconvincing and the narrative, as you say, is bitty.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:10pm on 18 October 2018

    Very sorry to hear it. This certainly isn't making it into my Best Books of the Year, but I plan to read the next one at some point.

  3. Posted by Gus at 07:57pm on 18 October 2018

    I shall await further assessments with interest and, depending, possibly try again. Think of yourself as a canary in the mineshaft of time-travelling fiction. Cuttlebones will be supplied.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:30pm on 18 October 2018

    See also comment 10 to the Blackout/All Clear review, in which I went through some other historical time travel fiction that came to mind. You've just caused the Kage Baker series, which I read in 2010, to be promoted up my priority list.

  5. Posted by Gus at 09:34pm on 18 October 2018

    Off to investigate Kage Baker and hoping that causing a reshuffle of your priorities is a lesser offence than idly picking at the frayed patches in the space-time wossit.

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