A Symphony of Echoes – Jodi Taylor

Again, the paperback cover is nothing like this, in fact it's sh*t
Again, the paperback cover is nothing like this, in fact it’s sh*t

Stockport Library having performed with commendable efficiency, I have yesterday collected, and today completed, the second of Jodi Taylor’s ‘Chronicles of St Mary’s’ series, A Symphony of Echoes. Those with memories that stretch back as far as last week will recall me describing the series as full of potential that the first book hadn’t really realised. Maybe I’m more cynical this week, or maybe the anti-depressants are up against just too much, but I shalln’t be travelling this route any further.

Ms Taylor seems to have plenty of fans so she won’t miss me: the series already stretches to seven dead tree books without counting the short stories that are available only on e-book so far, and this second book is copyright 2014, so it”s not as if she isn’t prolific. But this just isn’t working for me.

There’s no real progression from Just One Damned Thing After Another. The story hustles and bustles but it never really connects for me. Ms Taylor’s jokes aren’t funny enough, and her Madeleine ‘Max’ Maxwell isn’t as good a raconteur as she should be.

Even more than the first book, A Symphony of Echoes is made up of episodes that don’t really sit together. There’s an overall plot that links several of them, but there’s no sense of build or development. Each movement comes up on its own, seemingly out of nowhere. A powerful enemy is introduced subtly, exposed rapidly and executed far too easily to be convincing. (He’s not the only one: a very well-realised new supporting character is equally suddenly, and for no apparent reason, killed off, not to mention his successor being given the kind of build up that promises significance, only to disappear into the woodwork the next page). The series’ main enemy is given a convenient immunity from just being killed off: the heroes have to ensure he survives to carry out his next nefarious plan, which is original but a little too convenient.

I think what exemplifies the flaws of this book for me, and which put an early damper on my hopes of improvement, is the opening. I say opening, it lasts about sixty-five pages. Max and her colleague, friend, and just-about-to-be-written-out fellow historian Kallinda are sharing the latter’s last jump before retirement. A brief prologue sets it up for horror, terror, blood, monsters and dramatic irony that, in the end, Taylor follows through on by letting both women live and heal.

Basically, they’ve gone off to Whitechapel to see Jack the Ripper. Who turns out to be some supernatural force, some unholy monstrosity rather than human. That gets into the pod with them disguised as a muff (No. Not that kind of muff). It gets carried back to the future with them, contaminated Max, Kallinda, the pod, absolutely everything at all. There is one unbreakable, unshakable rule, completely inflexible in such circumstances: the pod does not open. The past cannot contaminate the future. It’s sealed until everybody and everything within dies, then it’s sterilised with extreme prejudice.

But nobody can stand watching Max die so they fight in, rescue the ladies and utterly destroy the Ripper Thing (which is a bloody stupid and inadequate explanation for Jack the Ripper that’s wrong on every single level possible, incidentally), even though it’s hypernaturally strong, has serious mental capabilities and can perpetuate itself from even a molecule. They burn it out of existence. End of monster, recovery of stout parties, episode has taken up sixty five pages and that’s it. It is of no bloody relevance to the story whatsoever.

That’s not good novel writing to me. It’s a direct breach of Chekhov – the gun that is introduced in the first Act must be fired in the third – and it demonstrates  Taylor undercutting anything realistic and coherent abut her created Universe. Rules are rules, with good, solid imperatives underpinning them, and the moment they’re introduced, they’re thrown away, without even an ingenious reason why they can be circumvented this time.

One last thing. In the first book, Taylor puts Max with Chief Farrell (and he’s still Chief, or Farrell, not Leon, even this far along) then upsets the applecart with unforgivable behaviour from him that Max almost immediately forgives. She does it again here, only much, much worse, soul-killingly worse, impossible to recover from worse, and once again Max forgives and returns to Farrell’s lap.

Not once, though I’d have been prepared to overlook it if it had been carefully used, and definitely not twice. I can’t believe in characters whose character is set in stone, but I even less can’t believe in those who are set in plasticene.

Shame, really. The idea is still full of potential, and there’s a closing scene to the drama that could have been really powerful, on all levels, in a better book. I wish I’d thought of that, but too late now. It’s Jodi Taylor’s baby. I just wish I liked its father’s nose better.


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