Monday, 8 January 2018

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor is the first in a rather long series (nine books according to a quick glance at goodreads) about time travelling historians. I picked it up because my mum has been recommending the series to me incessantly, so I bought the first book to make her stop.

Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake....

The title is a pretty accurate description the plot of the book, alas. It's a series of events, very loosely linked by a bit of an overarching plot that I can only hope becomes more significant in the later volumes. Also a lot of plot holes, but I'll get to that later. The book starts with the main character being recruited to the organisation of time-travelling historians, takes us through her training and then suddenly jumps forward four years with minimal cues in the text. A conversation in the middle of a chapter about people having known each other for four years really shouldn't be the main indication that so much time has passed. That's just one example, but it's symptomatic of an overall lack of polish that could have been fixed by a good structural edit. (More copy-editing wouldn't have hurt either, but that wasn't the main problem.) As far as I can ascertain, these books were originally self-published but have since been picked up by various small publishers. It doesn't seem like they were edited for re-release either, unless the newish print editions are completely different to the ebooks. (I can appreciate the difficulty in making significant changes in a book 1 when later books have to remain coherently linked to it, but still.)

The biggest problem with this book was, like I said, the structure. It's one thing to ignore the standard western story-telling structures of climax and denouement etc. Fine. But a bit of foreshadowing and firmer worldbuilding would not have gone astray. Establishing the crappiness of the near-future world would have fit brilliantly at the start, but instead there was more worldbuilding loaded up near the end, which was very frustrating.

The only thing that kept me turning pages instead of giving up in frustration was the author's ability to string a series of events together into something approaching a compelling yarn. It was an addictive read, despite the part of my mind that was despairing at what I mentioned above. (Of course, that means that it could have been brilliant with better editing. Alas.) The main characters were well-written and I was invested in their outcomes. On the other hand, I did keep losing track of some of the minor characters and was much less invested in them, including at times I was clearly supposed to be invested. As far as the minor romance plot goes, let's just say I found our protagonist much more forgiving than I would have been and I did not end the book very invested in that relationship.

As for the plot, Jodi Taylor's historians start off on the Connie Willis side of things and, rather bafflingly given what they and the reader know about the bad guys by that point, shift over to the Kage Baker side of time travelling historians (without the cyborgs). I can't say I found their motivations exceptionally consistent, especially in the moments when it really mattered and when the people who knew the full picture were involved. That got particularly annoying towards the end.

For all my annoyance as evidenced in the above paragraphs, I mostly enjoyed reading Just One Damned Thing After Another. I wouldn't recommend it above Connie Willis or Kage Baker, although it was funnier than many of those authors' books (except To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, which is hilarious). Right now I'm pretty torn about whether I will read the next book in the series. I expect I would be entertained but, even if the writing improves with successive books, I don't trust that I won't continue to be frustrated.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: Self-published in 2013, my edition Accent Press 2015
Series: The Chronicles of St Maries book 1 of about 9 (and ongoing I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from iBooks

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