UK Publisher: Headline
Genre: Humour, SFF
‘So tell me, Dr Maxwell, if the whole of History lay before you … where would you go? What would you like to witness?’
When Madeleine Maxwell is recruited by the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she discovers the historians there don’t just study the past – they revisit it.
But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And she soon discovers it’s not just History she’s fighting…
Perhaps the most baffling thing to me is that I hadn’t heard of these books sooner. Pitched for fans of Jasper Fforde (yes) and Ben Aaronovitch (yes), these are science fantasy comedy books (yes) set in North Yorkshire (yes), about a team of eccentric academics who have found a place to make the most of their skills, but have somehow developed into a society that seems more than a little odd to the average outside (yes). It’s like someone trawled through my brain and then translated it into a book perfectly designed to tip my dopamine receptors.
The story opens with Max, a doctor of history, being recruited by St Mary’s, a sub-campus of the fictional University of Thirsk, specialising in historical recreation and archaeology. Allegedly. In fact, they run a line in time travel, heading back to specific incidents and observing how they really played out, reporting back on perceived inaccuracies, and allowing the University to take the credit. The line is strictly observation – no interaction, no interference – because if you change history, history will do its best to remove the problem. And by problem, it means any interfering historian.
Plot-wise, the story is quite light, but that absolutely doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned. What this book gives me is a fantastic ensemble cast, absolute chaos filled with some delightful banter. There’s quite a wonderful love story with some delightful chemistry, a great narrative voice, a ‘found family’ tale which hits all the right buttons for me, and a very British turn of phrase and pace that I really enjoy. There’s a little conspiracy, a lot more… death than I was expecting, but while the deaths are handled poignantly, they don’t overshadow the fact that this is a farce as much as anything. Carry On Historians.
I expect a lot of this is because this is book one of what appears to be a fairly long series, so the Taylor took the time to really enjoy fleshing out her universe and her characters, giving enough plot to hang the development onto. One thing which I did struggle with was the passage of time – I thought a handful of months had passed between Max joining St Mary’s and the end of the book, but instead it’s over a period of six years. It doesn’t feel like six years to read, Taylor manages to trim the fat and still find time to indulge in character growth and relationship building. It reminds me of fanfics I’ve read, where authors write out the downtime for characters that you don’t see in shows, and have fun with the relationships outside of plot. It was wonderful to get that same structure and feeling in a novel, and really helped me get to grips with the characters and the setting. I ship Max and Chief intensely.
This is definitely more science fantasy than science fiction. Taylor makes no attempt to explain the science behind her time travel, and aside from a brief nod to paradoxes, she instead just expects the reader to accept the conceit – time travel exists, St Mary’s has access to it and a lot of other shiny tech. That’s all you need to know for the story to work and for you to be able to enjoy it. I think anything more involved would have ruined the tone. It’s not a book about science, it’s a book about messy people and messy relationships and messy history. It’s a book about sexing up the Humanities, so giving too much time to the STEM aspects would have been counter-productive.
It’s hard to know what else to say about this book without giving away what happens. Perhaps it’s good to be brief in that case – I loved it, I desperately want to read the rest of them, but I’m going to ration myself so that I don’t run out, and also so I actually get rid of some of the other titles on my TBR before I get entirely distracted by adding another 10 from the series plus short stories, plus however many from the sister series Time Police.
If you want a book that reads like a proper British farce, this is the book. If you want to get a real, deep insight into what I love in a story, and what I find funny, this is the book. If you want a good laugh and an easy, fun read, this is the book.
- A fun, not too plot-heavy, farcical British comedy with time travel romps, a romance I fully get behind, moments of real pathos, and lots of absolute chaos.
- For me there was just enough plot to move the story on, but it was almost the background for character and relationship development. It didn’t feel slow, it felt great.
- It’s a series I’m genuinely looking forward to reading more of, because it doesn’t feel stressful to read, but I’m invested. Instead of pulling me along by making the plot dark and tense, Taylor has done it just by making me want to spend more time with the characters, regardless of what happens. I could just read about a normal day.
Rating: 5/5 – I had a lot of fun with this book, and I’ve no doubt I’ll have fun with the rest of the series.