Saturday 20 November 2021

The Chronicles of St Mary's, by Jodi Taylor


A few posts ago I reviewed Another Time, Another Place, the twelfth and latest volume of The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor. I enjoyed that so much that I promptly purchased the first eleven books, and have now read all of them. First, a scene-setting extract from my previous review:

Those of you who are familiar with Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog will feel right at home, as the basic setting is similar. St Mary's is an offshoot of a British university sometime around the middle of this century, a separate department dealing solely with time travel which takes place by means of disguised transport pods which can be set to travel to a specific time and place. The sub-sub genre which this occupies could be summarised as a time-travelling comedy thriller, with the emphasis very much on the laughs. The story focuses on Max, the (female) Head of History at St Mary’s, who has overall responsibility for ensuring that information, and sometimes artefacts about to be destroyed, can be retrieved from the past without changing history (or more to the point, the future) as a result. Meanwhile, the dead hand of bureaucracy has Max's outfit in its sights, so she has both past and present crises to battle with. 

I should add that St Mary's has some sworn and deadly enemies, initially the Time Police (although relationships fluctuate), plus Clive Ronan and "Bitchface" Barclay, former members of staff who have gone rogue. Characters keep popping up rather confusingly as a result of the effects of time travel; it is a bit disconcerting to kill an old version of an enemy only to encounter a younger version later on. It is also something of a handicap to have to let an enemy live because you know he isn't due to die yet, and the one golden rule of time travel is never to do anything which might alter history, even in the smallest way. To ignore this rule is likely to result in severe consequences for the transgressor, and not just from the Time Police but from History itself. Having said that, I noticed that a couple of the villains have been killed at least twice, which ought to be impossible. Also, there appear to be two versions of St Mary's in existence for at least part of the time, which also ought to be impossible - I am baffled by the relationship between the apparent multiverse and the insistence on preserving one sacrosanct time-line.

It's probably better not to fret over technicalities, and just enjoy the ride. I frequently found myself laughing out loud and cannot recall ever finding a book series so amusing. It isn't all fun as the laughs are balanced by some powerful tragedies, creating something of an emotional roller-coaster. These darker moments don't just concern the historical events being witnessed, some of them impact directly on the historians. The good guys don't always win - or survive. In particular, brace yourself before reading Volume 8: And the Rest is History.

The series is also educational; for every mission into the past the Historians research the culture and current affairs in detail, which I found very interesting.  I commented in my previous review on the quality of the descriptive writing. The author is skilled at bringing other times and settings to vivid life; smells, dirt, sewage, disease, brutal violence and all.

Overall, this is just the sort of engaging escapism we need in times like the present, but you should note that the twelve volumes essentially tell one continuous story, so don't do what I did - start from the beginning!

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