You think you know what you’re in for after the first 29 words in the book. First, the author writes, “I made all this up. Historians and physicists—please do not spit on me in the street.” Then she quotes Arnold Toynbee, who was not the first to express the sentiment (and didn’t actually mean it): “History is just one damned thing after another.” But you’re certain what’s ahead when, immediately afterward, you encounter the “Dramatis Thingummy” for this time travel story with its capsule descriptions of the characters.
- Here’s one of those descriptions: “Kalinda Black—Historian. Blonde and blue-eyed. Looks like a Disney princess. Possibly drinks the blood of recently qualified trainees.”
- And here’s another: “Dr. Helen Foster. Early 30s. Medical doctor and with the people skills of Vlad the Impaler.”
- And Mr. Whissel, the author notes, is described simply as “Nasty piece of work.”
Humorous, but a standard time travel story
The author, a certain Jodi Taylor, is responsible for all this. And what follows is closer in spirit to Dr. Who or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than to anything written by Arthur C. Clarke or even Philip K. Dick. Alas, despite the broadest possible promise that the story will be funny from start to finish, Just One Damned Thing After Another is nothing of the sort. It’s a standard time travel story, laced with broad humor from time to time, especially in the dialog. Somehow, though, Taylor has managed to parlay this first effort into a series that now includes a dozen novels and fifteen short stories. It’s reasonably good, but not that good. And if you’re looking for a science fiction novel that’s plausibly based on scientific fact, you won’t find it here.
Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1) by Jodi Taylor (2013) 324 pages ★★★★☆
Don’t call it time travel
Just One Damned Thing After Another, and the 25 stories that follow it, chronicle the journeys through time of the “disaster-magnets” of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The Institute is an autonomous unit of the fictional University of Thirsk. It’s located in North Yorkshire, England, far to the north of London, near the coast of the North Sea. There, a small staff of professional historians works with teams of IT specialists, wardrobe staff, security personnel, and other people engaged in support functions. On assignment from the University, they ferret out historical facts by close-up observation for unnamed clients and are handsomely paid for the work. But, as the director explains to the hero of this tale, Dr. Madeleine “Max” Maxwell, “the phrase ‘time travel’ is so sci-fi. Here at St. Mary’s we investigate major historical events in contemporary time.”
“‘How does it work?'” Max asks. “He just looked at me. OK, then, stupid question.”
History can be hazardous to your health
Max’s training program is “difficult, strenuous, scary even,” and most of the trainees fall by the wayside before it’s over. Threats to life and limb do them in. Max endures, but it soon gets worse. “We had two deaths in my first two weeks as a historian.” It turns out that investigating the truth about such events as the Peterloo Massacre (Manchester, 1819) and the Peasants’ Revolt (also called Wat Taylor’s Rebellion, 1381) can be hazardous to your health. But there is much worse in store for the foolhardy historians of St. Mary’s. Just imagine what might happen in the Cretaceous Period (145 to 66 million years ago), when T. Rex roamed the Earth. Got the picture? Read the book, if you will.
About the author
Jodi Taylor self-published Just One Damned Thing After Another online, where a publisher picked it up and launched the St. Mary’s series. Taylor is intimately familiar with the Institute’s location. For nearly two decades, she worked in various jobs for the North Yorkshire County Council, including library facilities manager. On her author page on Amazon, Taylor writes “Born in Bristol and educated in Gloucester (facts both cities vigorously deny), she spent many years with her head somewhere else, much to the dismay of family, teachers and employers, before finally deciding to put all that daydreaming to good use and pick up a pen. She still has no idea what she wants to do when she grows up.” Taylor now lives in Gloucestershire.
For more reading
You’ll find this book listed with The best time travel novels. But be sure to check out another (much better) science fiction novel about historians mucking about in the past: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (A time-travel novel about the Black Death).
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels
- 10 top science fiction novels (plus lots of runners-up)
- 10 best alternate history novels reviewed here
- Seven new science fiction authors worth reading
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.