Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel I’d meant to read a couple of months earlier. I am, of course talking about the copy of Jodi Taylor’s 2018 novel “An Argumentation Of Historians” that I got for my birthday in that year.
This novel is the ninth one in Taylor’s amazing “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series (If you’ve never read this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, “St. Trinians”, a punk comic and a late-night BBC3 sitcom) and, at the time of preparing this review, it was the most recent novel in the series I owned (apart from the short story collection “The Long And The Short Of It”, which I haven’t read yet, or the tenth novel – which wasn’t available when I prepared this review in March 2019).
And this is probably one of the reasons why it has taken me so long to review this book, I really didn’t want to run out of “St. Mary’s” books (yes, they’re that good). Still, I was in the mood for a “St. Mary’s” novel, so I decided to finally take a look at it.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel is the ninth novel in a series. Although this novel contains some recaps and some self-contained sub-plots, you really need to have read the previous eight books in order to really understand both the story and the characters.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “An Argumentation Of Historians”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
After everyone in the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s has recovered from the events of the previous novel, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine “Max” Maxwell joins in with a jump to Greenwich in 1536 to study what really happened during Henry VIII’s famous jousting accident. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan. However, to everyone’s surprise, it is the Time Police who mess everything up this time.
After everything has been sorted out, Captain Ellis tells Max that their moustache-twirlingly evil arch-nemesis Clive Ronan is still out there and that he’d like both organisations to come up with a plan to catch him. So, Max comes up with a clever scheme involving some valuable jewelery and a time-jump to Persepolis shortly after it was taken by Alexander The Great. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really good, but different, entry in the series. Although it certainly contains all of the comedy and adventure that you’d expect from a “St. Mary’s” novel, it is more of a serious drama, romance and/or thriller novel than I’d expected. It’s a really good novel but, if you’re used to the series, then it both will and won’t catch you by surprise.
Although the novel contains a few of the short, fun, self-contained comedy-adventure time jumps that you’d expect, a surprisingly large portion of the novel involves Max being stranded in the middle ages (with only four years to escape before a time paradox happens). This segment is simultaneously the best and worst part of the novel.
On the one hand, it’s a really atmospheric, detailed, realistic and suspense-filled segment that allows for a lot of character-based drama and has the kind of grim, bleak and harsh tone that is vaguely reminiscent of something like “Game Of Thrones” (with maybe a tiny hint of Joe Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” too) 🙂
On the other hand, it is fairly long and is also slower-paced than both the beginning and ending of the novel. This also means that the series’ hilariously eccentric comedy elements don’t feel quite as prominent as they usually do. Likewise, although Max is a really interesting character, part of the fun of reading the series is being in St. Mary’s, spending time in this wonderfully eccentric, unique and chaotic place that is filled with bizarre people. So, separating Max from St. Mary’s changes the tone of the story quite a bit. Yes, this was probably the whole point of this segment but, still, it made me feel like I was missing out on something.
Still, in addition to the constant suspense of the medieval-based segment, the novel’s thriller elements are fairly good. Not only are there a few of the usual chaotic, fast-paced jaunts to the past (but fewer than usual) and other hilariously gripping scenes of mayhem, but there’s also the usual duel of wits between Max and Ronan too. Whilst most of this is handled fairly well, some of the later plot twists do seem a little rushed. Even so, they still add a lot of extra drama to the ending of the novel and my main complaint here is that more pages should have been dedicated to them.
However, after reading nine “St. Mary’s” novels, I’m starting to get the sense that Max and/or the Time Police will never catch Ronan. That, like the cartoon about the roadrunner and the coyote, the whole point is the chase. That, if Ronan was ever caught or killed, the whole series would come crashing to a directionless halt. And, yes, these cat-and-mouse scenes are really dramatic – but this element of the series means that they are at least mildly predictable by now.
In terms of the characters and the writing, this novel is excellent as ever 🙂 Not only is Max’s first-person narration as irreverent, eccentric, amusing, “matter of fact” and/or personality-filled as usual, but this novel certainly isn’t short on character-based drama. Seriously, it’s amazing how this series can handle such a large cast of characters whilst still making them not only seem distinctive, but also giving many of them their own sub-plots and story arcs too.
As for length and pacing this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a fairly hefty 465 pages in length, novels in this series really do seem to be getting progressively longer. Normally, this would be a good thing – but the story’s pacing is a bit different than usual. One of the cool things about a typical “St. Mary’s” novel is that it often feels like a much larger novel (or, more accurately, a cleverly-disguised short story collection) has been distilled/compressed into a sensible-size novel. And, if this novel’s 465 pages were all like this, then it would have been really awesome.
However, whilst both the beginning and ending of this novel are the kind of fast-paced, detailed, plot-dense story that you’d expect, everything slows down a bit for the gloomier and more morose medieval segment that I mentioned earlier. Yes, this change in pacing helps to add realism, drama and a bleak atmosphere, but it does make the novel feel a bit longer than it should be and it also means that, as mentioned earlier, the really gripping ending feels a little bit rushed by comparison. Seriously, if the medieval segment had been 30-50 pages shorter and the ending 30-50 pages longer, then the pacing would have been better.
All in all, whilst this isn’t my favourite novel in the series, it is still a really good novel. Yes, it does some things differently (which is both a good and bad thing) and the length/pacing aren’t perfect, but this is still a really compelling sci-fi/thriller/drama novel filled with interesting characters, fascinating places, hilarious comedy, serious moments and atmosphere.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get four and a half.