There are certain genres of narrative that I’m constantly in the search of. They’re comfort food for me, and they help inspire me creatively. The Ineffectual Detective is a genre that I absolutely adore, just like Strange Noir, Historical Fiction, and Silly Spies. But there’s one genre that will almost always leap out at me. Goofy Sci-Fi. It’s probably built around my young love for Douglas Adams, mixed with an adoration of Futurama and Mystery Science Theater 3000, but for whatever reason if you have a story that’s going to go through the tropes of sci-fi, while treating it completely tongue-in-cheek, I’m probably going to have a good time. I enjoy sci-fi in general, but a lot of it is terribly austere, and treated way too seriously, so when a story can kind of take the piss out of it and acknowledge that some of this stuff is incredibly silly and weird, I can get fully on the story’s wavelength.
So, I was delighted when I came across a series of short novels that seemed to fit perfectly in that subgenre. The series is written by Jodi Taylor and revolves around a group of historians at a special organization called St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The premise of the novels is that these are specially trained historians who use special time-travelling pods to traverse history, letting them witness history first hand and become the most accurate historians ever. That premise alone was enough for me to check out the first novel in the series, 2013’s Just One Damned Thing After Another, eager to see if I had found a new fun series of comedic sci-fi books meant for history dorks. And, I don’t think it quite worked for me.
The novel revolves around a woman named Dr. Madeline “Max” Maxwell, a new recruit to St. Mary’s. We see her introduced to the idea of time-traveling historical research, and instantly falling in love with it. She fully throws herself into the world of St. Mary’s, doing everything she can to become the best historian she can while dealing with all manner of obstacles. She has a slew of fellow historians and support staff, but a majority of them end up suffering unceremonious deaths, keeping very few characters with Max through the whole story. Because it’s a very dangerous job. They’re throwing themselves back in time, where life itself is pretty deadly. Plus, they’re primarily looking at major moments in history, which tend to be tumultuous. But, Max survives. She goes through several years at St. Mary’s becoming one of the most relied upon historians in the entire organization.
Things even get to the point where she’s offered an absurd opportunity with her partner Sussman. They’re being sent to the Cretaceous Period to observe dinosaurs. She of course agrees to the offer immediately, and has to say a temporary goodbye to her new romantic interest, the head of the technical side of St. Mary’s named Leon Russell. Which is when Russell admits to her that he’s actually from the future. He and the Boss, the leader of the group, came from a future where St. Mary’s had fallen on hard times and where a splinter group started travelling through time for profit. They’ve been sent back to protect things, and he thinks Max is important in this fight. Which ends up being correct, because when she and Sussman get to the Cretaceous Period it turns out that this splinter group has gotten to Sussman, and are using him to rat on St. Mary’s while building a hunting lodge in the past. Max survives though, and manages to get back to the present, where she and a group of St. Mary’s volunteers return to the Cretaceous to destroy the criminals.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Things go terribly wrong on the revenge trip, and several members of the team are left stranded in the past. Max ends up being fired from St. Mary’s by a vindictive high-ranking member of the group who has imposed herself as the leader of St. Mary’s in the chaos, and has to return to the real world. And it doesn’t go well. But, she eventually is able to travel back in time, alone, and saves everyone, bringing balance back to St. Mary’s along with a new scheme. They’re going to start going back in time, taking items that are doomed to be destroyed, and hide them so that archaeologists in the future can find them, since their existence won’t influence the timeline. They start with the Library of Alexandria, and end up running back into the evil time travelers. But, they came prepared this time, and are able to defeat them, leading to a new golden age of St. Mary’s.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book. I love the concept, and the way that the book played with them was actually a lot of fun. I loved seeing the historians go on their various treks, before coming up with the idea to mess around with historically doomed artifacts in order to protect them in the future. It’s a lot of good stuff. The only problem is, I don’t think it’s particularly well executed. At least for me. Despite all of that plot description I gave, the book is incredibly short. Under 300 pages. Which means that there’s a lot going on in a short amount of time, which makes everything feel incredibly rushed. There are several great concepts in the books, and fleshed out they could have made for a really interesting and engaging stories. But the book ends up feeling like a description of a season of television, rather than a book. It skips through a bunch of different stories, never really landing on anything for long enough to give it any weight, and it just generally doesn’t seem to have functioning acts. I enjoyed the book, for the most part, but I feel like I’ll struggle to remember it quickly, because for most of the book it felt like someone was telling you about a story, rather than telling a story. As always, this is just how it landed with me, if it works for other people that’s great. If the premise of the book sounds interesting to you, I would recommend checking it out. You man end up liking it more than I did. But, for me, this was a bit of a swing and a miss.
Just One Damned Thing After Another was written by Jodi Taylor, 2013.
Categories: Page Turners