Just One Damned Thing After Another – Jodi Taylor

This is not the cover of the paperback I read
This is not the cover of the paperback I read

I like books and music. Living on a limited income, and with negative equity to repay, I haven’t really got the space to take a moral stance towards Amazon. Of course, this comes with a drawback, in the form of endless e-mails pointing me towards books and records that Amazon’s algorithms are convinced I will like. Well, those algorithms are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard 95% of the time, and the other 5% turn out to be books and records I have already bought: in some cases, through Amazon itself a few years earlier. Still, it proves that the system works, for a given value of ‘work’.

Every now and then, however, I do get tempted. Not, in this instance, by an e-mail, but by one of those ‘If you like this…’ recommendations that litter up the place when you’re browsing relatively aimlessly. I’m not even sure what I was looking at now, but about five to six weeks ago, I caught sight of this book series, ‘The Chronicles of St Mary’s’, by Jodi Taylor, of which Just One Damned Thing After Another is the first.

The description sounded promising: St Mary’s is an historical research institute where the historians go out and get their hands dirty, traveling in time to different periods to work out exactly what happened. But history is a dangerous, not to mention slapdash thing, prone to kick back at any moment. The Chronicles are narrated by Alice Maxwell, aka Max, and were pitched as being exciting, funny and highly entertaining (on Amazon, the last goes without saying).

I read very little SF/Fantasy outside my select group of favourite authors (one of whom has more or less given up writing fiction), and don’t really have much interest in expanding that circle, but something about the set-up and the description attracted my interest and when that happens, my instincts are usually pretty good. Courtesy of Stockport Library, I have now sampled the aforementioned Book 1, and am prepared to comment upon it.

The one-word review is ‘disappointing’. Everything needed for a successful series of books is there, but despite the near endless potential, it just doesn’t coalesce. There’s nothing bad about the book, enough to put me off reading any further, but I am hoping that we have a case of early Pratchett here, where the author takes a couple of goes to fully realise what they’re trying to do. So I’m looking to borrow the next book, in the hope of improvement.

The set-up is that Max is a historian who owes her profession to crucial support from a School teacher who showed faith in her as an adolescent where her entire family – not otherwise mentioned – were abusive and destructive. Max is a loner, frequently drunk, passionate, celibate, a walking disaster area, but very intelligent albeit completely unfocused.

Until, that is, said Head Teacher, Mrs de Winter, recommends her for a post at St Mary’s Institute, an Historical research Unit attached to the University of Thirsk, which turns out to be the hands-on unit I have already described. It’s incredibly super-secret, ramshackle to an improbable fault at the same time as being very highly-organised, and responsible to some ultra-secret Government department, of which we see nothing.

Max has to get through four years of training to qualify, during which her intake of twelve is reduced to three. She sort of partners with the snide and highly intelligent David Sussman, who goes on to betray her and St Mary’s (and get wiped out all but offstage almost immediately) as it is revealed that there is an alternate organisation with access to time travel, that is running it for profit, without thought or concern for the effect on history itself.

Taylor’s writing is vigorous but uncontrolled. There are funny moments, but for the most part they don’t quite work because she’s not able to draw the humour out. Max herself is something of a problem: she’s writing after the fact and therefore in knowledge of what is to come, and she’s not above dropping hints about future fates, but these come awkwardly and inconsistently. There are lengthy passages about projects in which everything is calculated to the nth degree, but multiple, multi-disciplinary experts, until it’s impossible for anything to be unforeseen or go wrong.

But they always go wrong, with a decreasing amount of dramatic impact that could have been circumvented by playing up the comic aspect of preparations never being effective. Taylor hasn’t yet got the knack of balancing the two aspects of the story.

Nor can she, at this moment, maintain a coherent storyline. The book covers years of Max’s life, without the passage of time ever really being experienced, and the various stages of the story have no real flow. They’re just episodes with no links or continuity.

These are all things that can be resolved. Look at the difference between The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Taylor has come up with a very good basic idea, and practice can only help sharpen her imagination and her skills.

There is only one aspect to this book that I do seriously question. Max discovers that one of the senior team, Chief Leon Farrell, is interested in her, and this eventually ripens into furious sex and love. Farrell, she learns, is from the future, here to try to secure St Mary’s history from interference by their unscrupulous profiteering rivals. In his future, Farrell has lost both his wife and his two young sons.

A major expedition to the Cretaceous period goes wrong and Farrell is among those left behind. The disaster leaves Isabel Barclay – who hates and is jealous of Max – in charge and she not only forbids a rescue mission but sacks Max on the spot, leaving her stranded and bereft of anything. She is also pregnant with Farrell’s child, a fact she only learns twenty minutes before she miscarries, through neglect of herself.

Max does succeed in rescuing Farrell and the other stranded characters, and exposing Barclay as an enemy. Her reunion with Farrell is glorious but, against the advice of the medical officer, she does not reveal her pregnancy to Farrell. Who therefore learns of it via Barclay, who gives it the worst possible spin.

His anger and despair is so great that he says unforgivable things, truly unforgivable things, things you can’t take back, things you can’t forget, things that are a permanent canker in the soul. Yet within literally hours the pair have apologised to each other, and said that they love each other, and it’s all over, all forgiven, all is well.

I’m sorry, but no. That’s the point Taylor has misjudged completely. No-one can hurt you like someone you have loved and allowed to see all the places where you can be hurt, soul hurt. That’s what love is. It’s giving someone the key to everything, trusting them to the ultimate degree. Betraying that degree of trust is betraying everything. You can’t some back from that, not all the way. Not with words and rarely with actions. Taylor glosses over something that can’t be glossed over.

But that’s the only place where there is such a grievous error. The rest of the book is enjoyable and the potential underlines everything. Taylor seems to be perfectly capable of improving enough to make the most of her idea, and I’m hoping to soon discover that she began that in book 2.

It would help her immensely to have at least threepence halfpenny spent on the paperback cover, next time.

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