I know I said that, after a second bite at Jodi Taylor’s ‘Chronicles of St Mary’s’ series, that these books were not for me and that I wouldn’t be bothering with any of the later books, but at the time I wrote that I had forgotten (until reminded by a Stockport Library e-mail a few days ago) that in the first flush of assuming that, Discworld-like, the books would rapidly improve, I had reserved two more of the series.
Ok, so they’d arrived, and they were the third and seventh books respectively. I thought it was ungrateful to leave them on the Reservation shelf, especially as one of them had been bought in at my request and, having taken them home, decided I had to read them, despite the pile of books as yet untouched that are making actually getting to my bed at night an obstacle course. No need to actually review them, is there?
Except that, having given a negative opinion of the books I’d read so far, I felt obliged to report that one of these two books deserves a different response.
A Second Chance, that third book, has an oddly prosaic title compared to its predecessors and successors. It’s apt to this essay, though really this is a third chance, and it’s utterly realistic as to the contents of the story itself. To remind you of the set-up, St Mary’s is a highly secretive institution which uses time travel to verify historical events, with results that lead to utterly hysterical laughter (among those who follow the books). The stories are narrated by Max, aka Dr Madeleine Maxwell (not Alice as I mistakenly put before), who is now Chief Operations Officer and is continually treating the rules as things that apply to everybody else (or at least she goes around saying that that’s how she behaves). Max is in love with Chief Ferrell (who is only slowly beginning to be referred to as Leon), who is the Chief Technical Officer. That’s all you need for now.
The central event of this book is a heavily-manned, comprehensive and long-lasting expedition to witness the fall of Troy and prove/disprove the legend of the Trojan Horse. It involves two phases, the first lasting over six months, set ten years before the fall; exploring, mapping, understanding life in Troy, and second witnessing the end of the long Grecian siege.
Up to this point, there’s nothing to distinguish the book from its two predecessors. It’s herky-jerky, the jokes don’t work, the bickering gets tiresome. There’s only an unusually downbeat and serious in media res introduction, Max caught and in dangerous peril, to break the mood, and even that can be easily dismissed.
But once the historians reach the closing days of the siege itself, the book changes irrevocably, and for the better. The humour vanishes. Taylor constructs an artful narrative for what ‘really’ happened that’s not only perfectly plausible in itself but, more importantly, plausible as a root story from which the mythology of the Horse could have developed. The book focuses on the tragedy of what is about to happen: how Troy falls, how its people are massacred, the utter horror of everything.
It is calm, thoughtful and completely serious, and it is immensely effective and absorbing.
Inevitably, and through no fault of her own except that this sort of thing always happens to her and everybody blames her, even though Taylor doesn’t write her into situations where her own errors actually cause disasters, Max ends up in the danger we’ve already met in media res and from which the rest of the team has to help her.
Which leads directly to that by now inevitable cliche of these books, the Falling Out With Leon.
Yes, once every book, Max and her lifelong love have a disastrous argument in which things are said that Can’t Be Taken Back, bedrock-blasting words meant to hurt at the core, things you never can recover from, that you can forgive but cannot forget, and of course they get back together, so this one, despite it being an even rawer situation than before, is just more of the same.
Basically, Leon wants to break the most fundamental rule of all, and bring back an orphaned young boy, saving him from the slaughter. Max sticks to the rules and refuses to let him. Either the boy is put outside, or she will shoot. The boy.
It’s a crusher, especially as the pair were planning to leave St Mary’s after this, and make a life together. Leon gives in (actually, he cheats, but we don’t find that out until later on), but this is a soul-crusher, or it would be if we hadn’t already been through this sort of thing twice and seen them get back together and be just as loving as before.
Except that Taylor has a different idea up her sleeve. The frostiness between Max and Leon lasts nine months, far longer than before, before it ends, and it ends not in the cliche of reconciliation, but in the sudden, unforeseen death of Leon, from a massive heart attack.
It’s completely unexpected, and it leaves the final third of the book to be written in a frozen horror of loss and self-recrimination, in which I found every note Taylor struck to be on the mark. Worse still, given that this is a series about time travel, Taylor twists the knife in an impossibly crucifying manner by engineering a situation where Max, put in peril, is rescued by a much younger Leon.
Its the one golden gift we all of us who have loved someone and lost them want from the Universe, that impossible last chance to see them again, to say all those unsaid things, bury all hatchets, say that last ‘I love you’ that you were never given, and it’s given to Max in circumstances where she cannot, dare not even acknowledge that she will ever know this Leon in his future, for it will collapse history around them, and his future and her past will be destroyed.
It’s incredibly effective. And it leads on to a second shock development by Taylor. Her last jump is to be to Agincourt which, unlike Troy, turns out to be exactly as history (and Shakespeare) records it, but which ends in disaster. Max’s colleague Tim Peterson gets a scythe wound in the arm and, to protect him, Max ha to run, drawing attention to herself, leading pursuit away. It gets her killed, a sword through the heart. From which she wakes up with a faceful of carpet. And a hole right through her.
It’s a wish-fulfillment ending, the Second Chance of the book’s title. How it’s done, why it’s done, the mechanics of it, are not told in this book, where all we get is the gift of a Happy Ending, but Kleio, the Muse of History (aka Mrs Partridge, the Director’s secretary) has pulled Max into a different world, to the St Mary’s of, presumably, Earth-2. Where it was Max who died and Leon who lived on. They have their second chance.
Tolkien would call it a eucatastrophe, others a cheat on a par with ‘and then he woke up and it was all a dream.’ I’ll take it, in the same way I am unashamedly moved by Animal Man 26, Grant Morrison’s own ironic but wonderfully touching version of that dream thing. Taylor took me so thoroughly through loss and emptiness that I had to write this to give her credit, and even though the rational side of me says that resurrecting Leon Ferrell cheapens the whole thing, honestly I don’t care.
Taylor leaves the book on a cliffhanger that sets up the fourth book, the underlying notion of which is referred to in book seven. Presumably, a bit more about what happened to Max is explained in that, and one day maybe curiosity will lead me to pick it up if I see it in the Library, but Lies, Damned Lies and History is enough for me to repeat that the series doesn’t really work for me. A pity: it’s a gorgeous premise with endless possibilities and in some ways it’s painful to see it misfiring. Ms Taylor’s publishers and fans disagree with me, so there you go.