Review: “A Symphony Of Echoes” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, after reading Jodi Taylor’s excellent “Just One Damned Thing After Another“, I was eager to read the next book in the series. I am, of course, talking about Taylor’s 2013 novel “A Symphony Of Echoes”.

Anyway, although “A Symphony Of Echoes” is a sequel, it can also be read as a stand-alone novel. Yes, you’ll get more out of it if you read “Just One Damned Thing After Another” first, but this novel contains enough recaps etc.. for it to just about stand on it’s own two feet. Even so, I’ll probably be comparing this novel to the previous one quite a lot in this review.

So, let’s take a look at “A Symphony Of Echoes”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “A Symphony Of Echoes” I read.

This novel, like the previous one, focuses on a group of time-travelling historians who work for a secret research institute called St. Mary’s. The story begins when one of the senior historians, Kal, decides to retire. In accordance with tradition, when a historian retires, they get to visit whichever part of the past they want to before they leave.

So, along with Dr. Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short), Kal travels back to Victorian London in order to scare the bejeesus out of Jack The Ripper. Of course, as you would expect, things don’t go exactly to plan.

Whilst Max and Kal are recovering from their injuries in St. Mary’s sickbay, Chief Farrell goes missing. After a while, the historians work out that he has been kidnapped and taken to the future. So, it is up to Max to mount a daring rescue….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s very compelling. Not only does it begin with a grippingly streamlined flourish of thrilling drama and chilling horror, but the story also has a rather cleverly-designed plot (which, though it may get confusing at some points, ultimately ends up making sense) and a slightly more well-handled emotional tone than the previous novel too. Plus, of course, it also resolves the small cliffhanger at the end of the first novel too 🙂

“A Symphony Of Echoes” also makes full use of the series’ time-travel premise in all sorts of clever ways too. Not only is there a sub-plot about time paradoxes, but there are also some rather interesting scenes that are set in the future too. Plus, of course, there are some interesting scenes about how the existence of time travel has had an impact on the lives of the main characters too. The novel’s title isn’t there to sound pretentious – it is a reference to the knock-on effects that events can have on future events. And it’s really cool to see the series exploring all of this stuff 🙂

But, yes, the plot of this novel can get a little bit confusing at times. However, if you’re willing to pay attention and wait, then almost everything in the story has some kind of logical explanation.

Yes, a couple of the plot twists do seem a little bit contrived/cheap (eg: Max coming up with a plan, but not mentioning the details to the reader until later etc..) but, ultimately, pretty much everything makes sense by the end of the book. The only exception to this is that some elements of the Jack The Ripper-based scenes are deliberately left chillingly mysterious, in order to increase the horror of these scenes.

As I hinted earlier, this novel is a bit more of a thriller than “Just One Damned Thing After Another” was. There are a lot more brilliant set-pieces, intriguing mysteries, clever plans and scenes of fast-paced drama. Yes, these are contrasted with slower moments and moments of character-based drama, but the novel is – in some parts at least- a faster-paced, more streamlined and more thrilling story than I’d expected.

Likewise, the emotional tone of this novel feels much more well-handled too – with the segues from serious moments to comedic moments (and vice versa) feeling more natural and less jarring than in the previous novel. A lot of this is helped by the fact that this novel starts off in a fairly “serious” way, with lots of perilous drama and even a few moments of horror too. So, when the story’s emotional tone lightens, it comes as a relief to the reader. It also prepares the reader for the fact that the story will have serious moments too.

Still, when this novel is comedic, it is hilarious. Not only are there a few amusing references (eg: to “The Big Bang Theory” etc..), but Max’s first-person narration and the novel’s dialogue is as brilliantly sarcastic, “matter of fact” and well-written as ever too 🙂 Plus, this story is also filled with all of the hilariously eccentric details that you would expect – such as the noise that a dodo makes (“grockle”, if anyone is curious).

Seriously, I cannot praise the humour in both this novel and the previous one highly enough 🙂 But, for my international readers, I should probably point out that a lot of the humour in this series is very British, so I don’t know how well it will translate to audiences outside the UK.

In terms of the characters, they’re all reasonably interesting, well-written and/or stylised too. If you’ve read the previous novel, then you’ll enjoy seeing lots of familiar faces again (as well as a few unfamiliar ones too). Yes, some things remain the same (eg: Max and Leon’s tumultuous, argument-filled relationship) but there’s also a bit of character development in this story too. The most noticeable example of this is Max finding herself with more responsibilities and authority than she had in the previous novel. Even so, this novel still manages to keep a fair amount of the “punk” attitude that made the previous novel so much fun to read.

But, if you haven’t read the previous novel, then you might find the characterisation to be a little bit “light”. It’s still there, but you’ll get a lot more out of the novel’s moments of emotional drama if you read “Just One Damned Thing After Another” first. Yes, some of the moments of interpersonal drama in the story do border on the melodramatic at times – but this is part of the style of the series.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good too. Although the novel contains a mixture of fast-paced and slow-paced scenes, and a slightly more complicated plot, it remains reasonably compelling throughout. Likewise, at just 233 pages (in the edition I read), this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – an efficiently short modern novel 🙂

However, it’s possible that I read an earlier edition with slightly smaller print. Plus, although I don’t usually critique this stuff, the copy I read does bear the hallmarks of an early version/small press edition (eg: JPEG compression/ image resizing artefacts in the cover art, a couple of barely noticeable typos etc..). Personally, I felt that this added to the eccentric charm of the story and made me feel like I was discovering something intriguingly new and obscure. However, fussy perfectionists probably won’t like it.

All in all, this is an extremely enjoyable novel 🙂 It tells a slightly complicated story about time travel which is alternately thrilling, hilarious, scary and poignant. In other words, it’s a good sequel to “Just One Damned Thing After Another” – even if, although I liked many individual moments and scenes from this story better, I slightly preferred the previous novel as a whole (probably because it introduced me to this awesome series).

If I had to give “A Symphony Of Echoes” a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful 🙂

Review: “Just One Damned Thing After Another” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

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.

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “Just One Damned Thing After Another” that I read.

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.