Back when I first discovered another novel called “The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman, I happened to notice Jodi Taylor’s 2013 novel “Just One Damned Thing After Another” on the same website. Intrigued by the title, I… waited several months before eventually remembering it and buying a second-hand copy.
So, let’s take a look at “Just One Damned Thing After Another”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins when a historian called Dr. Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short), receives a job offer from a mysterious research facility called “St. Mary’s”. After the interview, she is asked to sign some official documents before it is revealed that this research institute doesn’t just study the past… they can travel to it. However, it is a dangerous job. An extremely dangerous job. The kind of job that gives Health and Safety people nightmares. Naturally, Max is delighted…..
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is brilliant! Imagine “Doctor Who” mixed with “Stargate SG-1” mixed with “Warehouse 13” mixed with “St. Trinians” – but with a bit more humour, a bit more grittiness, a slightly punk attitude, a lot more eccentricity and even more tea. Seriously, there is a lot of tea in this novel.
Basically, this novel is a gloriously quirky, nerdy sci-fi thriller novel (with some comedy and grim drama too). The sci-fi elements of the story are vague enough to be quirky/intriguing/comedic, whilst also being explained enough to seem realistic. The novel also does the “the extraordinary is mundane” thing in a way that I haven’t seen done so well since I finished watching “Stargate SG-1” on DVD a few years ago. Plus, the novel sets up some really interesting rules… which are then broken in equally interesting ways.
In addition to this, despite being a sci-fi novel, one amusing theme in the novel is how history is the least glamourous of the academic disciplines and how the historians are eager to compete with the sciences for press coverage and/or prestige. This hilariously ironic plot element is also helped by the fact that more emphasis is placed on how cool time travel is rather than the science behind it.
The novel’s thriller elements are really interesting too. This story includes a really interesting mixture of character-based drama, situation-based drama and action-thriller elements. Whilst this novel isn’t the kind of thriller that can be binge read in a single short session, it is an incredibly gripping book. Plus, there are some truly brilliant moments of suspense and drama too 🙂
As for the novel’s historical elements, it probably isn’t historically accurate. There’s even a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that reads “I made this all up. Historians and physicists – please do not spit on me in the street“. And this novel’s gleefully irreverent attitude towards history, despite being a novel about the importance of historical accuracy, just adds to the gloriously eccentric charm of the story 🙂
The writing and narration in this novel is absolutely amazing. This novel has personality. The novel is narrated by Max and her informal narration is so much fun to read 🙂 It’s both grimly matter-of-fact and brilliantly comedic at the same time.
Seriously, the last time I found first-person narration as good and distinctive as this was in an incredibly chilling horror novel called “Slights” By Kaaron Warren that I read a decade ago. Or possibly in Hewlett & Martin’s hilarious “Tank Girl: Armadillo” novel (which I really must re-read sometime). Or in Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”. In other words, the writing and narration in this novel is brilliant.
The characters in this novel are also brilliant too. Whether it is Max herself, who is a more British and mildly more realistic version of the typical “badass action hero” character you’d expect to see in a thriller, whilst also having emotional depth too (the closest comparison I can think of is Starbuck from the modern version of “Battlestar Galactica” mixed with Tank Girl, but this comparison doesn’t even come close). The background characters are quirky, interesting and/or complicated too.
The novel’s villains are especially interesting too. The main villain is a moustache-twirling evil mastermind who only appears in a few scenes, and is more comedically evil than genuinely frightening. Yet, all of the story’s lesser villians are a lot scarier and more… shocking… than you would expect. Seriously, this novel’s moments of evil will catch you by surprise and make you gasp.
One interesting thing about this novel is that the time and place it is set in are left mysteriously ambiguous. At first, we’re given the impression that it is set in some version of present-day Britain. Yet, the novel’s “world” includes hologram technology (which is seen as normal, mundane and everyday). Plus, the characters sometimes use realistic guns and sometimes use futuristic “blasters” (seemingly at random). At one point, someone without any money visits a “free clinic” (seriously, what happened to the NHS?!?!).
So, whether this novel is set in a mildly dystopian parallel universe and/or version of the near future is left intriguingly ambiguous. Personally, I like to think of it in a similar way to the “so bad that it’s good” television series “Bugs“, in that it is set in an amusingly weird alternate version of our own world.
The emotional tone of this novel is extremely strange though. When I started reading it, I thought that it was one of the best comedy novels I’d read in quite a while. Then there was a slightly serious segment about WW1. Then the story was back to being a comedy again. And then it suddenly got very dark, creepy and disturbing (you’ll know the scene in question when you see it!). Then it became a comedy again. Then there was more misery and unrelenting bleakness… that then relented to provide some brilliant moments of satisfying drama. And then…
Seriously, this novel is one hell of an emotional rollercoaster! And, although the story’s darker moments can really catch you by surprise, this contrast works surprisingly well. The novel’s grim/bleak/disturbing parts make the humour funnier by contrast and vice versa. Even so, be prepared for a shock or two when reading this book.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably interesting. The pacing is really good, and the story never really gets dull. Somehow, this book manages to seem like a meandering, random thing whilst actually telling a very carefully planned and structured story that won’t fully make sense until the end. Seriously, the pacing in this novel is brilliant! It’s relaxing, yet also unpredictable and incredibly compelling.
Plus, although the novel is a little on the long side at 394 pages in length, it crams a lot of storytelling, settings etc.. into those 394 pages. Likewise, this novel is compelling enough that you’ll want to spend a while longer reading it. So, the length is acceptable.
Although this novel is clearly the first novel in a series (and I’ve already ordered the second book), it thankfully only ends on a small cliffhanger and tells a reasonably self-contained story that leaves you eager for more. Basically, this novel is spent setting up what I presume to be the premise of the rest of the series. But, you’ll be so gripped by all of the story developments that you won’t care that you’ve just read what is essentially an extended “pilot episode” for a longer series.
All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. Yes, the changes in emotional tone might catch you by surprise (and some parts of the book are pretty grim/shocking). But, everything from the narration to the humour to the atmosphere to the adventures to the settings to the premise of the story is brilliant.
If you want a quirky, gripping sci-fi novel that is alternately hilariously funny and grimly depressing/shocking/bleak, then read this book! If you want something that is like a slightly punk, post-watershed version of “Doctor Who”, mixed with a British version of “Stargate SG-1”, then read this novel. In short, read this novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.