Woo hoo! Thanks to a wonderful birthday present from a family member a few days before I prepared this review, I am now the proud owner of several more novels in Jodi Taylor’s awesome “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series 🙂
Although I’ll probably carefully ration them out over the next few months, I thought that I’d take a look at the sixth novel in the series, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” (2015), today. You can find my reviews of the previous five novels here, here, here, here and here.
Although this novel is the sixth novel in a series, it can pretty much almost be read as a stand-alone book, since the premise basically serves as another introduction to the series (not to mention that there are a few recaps too). Even so, you’ll get more out of this book if you read the previous five books first.
So, let’s take a look at “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in a secret time-travelling historical research institute called St.Mary’s. Accident-prone senior historian Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) is having a meeting with the institute’s head, Dr.Baristow, who tells her that she’s been assigned five new recruits that she will have to train into historians.
The recruits are a rather motley crew that consist of a mohawk-wearing punk, a member of the upper classes, a mini-Max, a random guy and *gasp* a coffee-drinker (practically heresy in St.Mary’s, where tea is king).
Remembering her own training, Max decides to do things a bit differently. Instead of teaching the recruits lots of theory first, she wants to take them on short, low-risk jumps into the past throughout the course. Of course, this being St.Mary’s, there’s really no such thing as “low-risk”….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really good novel in a great series 🙂 There’s the usual unique mixture of comedy, thrills and drama – not to mention that the idea of turning Max into a training officer is a brilliant reversal of the first novel in the series (where Max is a trainee). Like a new episode of a favourite TV show, this is a novel that manages to be both reassuringly familiar and intriguingly new at the same time.
If you’ve never read this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, a late-night BBC3 sitcom, “St. Trinians” and Terry Pratchett, but with a little bit of a punk sensibility and a gloriously eccentric sense of humour. Although I may make a few small criticisms in this review, the series as a whole is one of the best that I’ve read and this novel isn’t too out of place in it. In other words, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” is a really good novel in a series of great novels.
In terms of the time travel scenes, they are as inventively weird as ever – including things like an adorable baby mammoth, a character nearly drowning in the desert and a hilariously bizarre encounter with the ancient historian Herodotus.
These hilariously chaotic scenes of farce and slapstick comedy are also contrasted with some more serious and grim historical moments, such as the brutal deaths of Joan Of Arc and Richard III. Although the first novel in the series struggled to get this contrast right, this novel has a fairly good mixture of comedy and serious drama, with neither overwhelming the story too much.
In addition to this, this novel actually implies when the main events of the series take place. Although many of the “St. Mary’s” novels have slightly weird background details that hint that the stories take place in the near future, one of the later parts of this story (involving the “100 year rule”) pretty much points out that the main “St. Mary’s” storyline takes place in the 2040s-60s. I’m kind of surprised that it has taken the series this long to point it out, since I vaguely remember being mildly confused by this element during first couple of books.
Like in some previous novels, this novel is pretty much a short story collection in disguise – with a series of sub-plots taking place in different times and places, in addition to a few brilliantly comedic stand-alone scenes (such as Max finally taking her outdoor survival training). On the whole, this works really well and allows for a really good mixture of comedy and drama, in addition to adding a lot of variety to the story too 🙂
However, if there is one criticism to be made of this novel, it’s that some of the story arc elements seemed a little bit light. Although there are hints at nefarious plots in the background, a brief mention of Clive Ronan, a dramatic plot twist or two and even a brief appearance by the Time Police, the dramatic background plots of earlier novels like “A Trail Through Time” don’t really turn up here. Yes, the novel is still fairly dramatic, but it really doesn’t have quite the same sense of being part of an epic story arc. Even so, it’s still really compelling.
A lot of this is due to the fact that Max is responsible for training a new group of historians, which allows the story to include a bit of extra characterisation, some new types of suspense, some extra drama and some additional comedy (such as when one of them decides to *gasp* drink coffee instead of tea). This also serves as another introduction to the the series for people who are new to it too. As I mentioned earlier, there’s enough familiar stuff to make this novel feel wonderfully relaxing but enough new stuff to keep the story interesting.
In terms of the characters, they’re as hilariously eccentric as ever – especially with the new additions. Likewise, Max’s first-person narration is as wonderfully informal, irreverent and personality-filled as ever. Both the characters and the narration are a major source of both comedy and drama in this series, and this novel certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At 388 pages, it’s a bit longer than I had expected, but this didn’t matter too much because I really enjoyed the story. Likewise, in contrast to the first couple of novels in the series, the pacing is a lot more consistent and confident here – with the story containing a really good mixture of moderately-paced and fast-paced scenes.
All in all, this is a really good novel in a great series. If you’re new to the series, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel and, if you’re already a fan, then this is a fairly solid “episode” of the series. Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same brevity and high-stakes drama as some of the earlier novels, but it is as funny, dramatic and compelling as you would expect 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.