A Second Chance – Jodi Taylor

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.


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 demonstratesĀ  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.

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.