The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I
Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.
St Mary’s welcomes those who have few family ties: fewer people to notify when things go wrong; as things do, frequently. Max and her band of fellow trainees discover this almost immediately. There are all sorts of hazards to negotiate: R&D on the verge of blowing up the building once again; pod malfunctions; and, worst of all, History’s own way of neutralising anyone who threatens to change the timeline. It’s risky stuff: as Max herself laments at one point, ‘this unit go[es] through historians like laxatives through a short grandmother’. It’s that old paradox, about how stepping on a butterfly in the Palaeolithic period can fundamentally change the evolution of mankind (or similar). But Max and her colleagues are willing to risk this for the sheer joy of witnessing the building of Westminster Abbey, or the Battle of Agincourt, or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. Max, an ancient history specialist, dreams of the Trojan War, but that’s presumably something for future books.
And so, discreetly directed by the research department at the University of Thirsk, these ‘tea-drenched disaster-magnets‘ rattle around history, observing, discovering, and occasionally running at full tilt away from things with enormous teeth. But when a special project pitches Max and her partner Sussman back further than any team have ever gone before – into the depths of the Cretaceous period – they make a shocking discovery. First, no one, and I mean no one can be trusted. Secondly, they are not alone. (Not counting the T-Rex, Ankylosaurus and other local fauna.) It turns out that St Mary’s don’t have the monopoly on time travel, and that other groups of people are far less rigorous about the way they interact with the past. Someone is trying to exploit history for its money-making potential. And Max suddenly realises that she’s stumbled across something which will not only prove central to the story of St Mary’s itself, but completely transform the future of the Institute and its historians.
Taylor’s story is enormous fun. It makes historians the swashbuckling heroes of a story stuffed with rivalries, betrayal, truly wicked villains, love, sex and tea. Lots of tea. As one character notes, ‘Show me a cup of tea and I’ll show you at least two historians attached to it‘. I feel that Taylor must surely be an historian herself to have such an indulgent fondness for a group of people usually condemned, in fiction, to the dusty corners of libraries. Instead, Taylor takes her heroes out of the libraries and flings them into situations that probably have their closest parallel in the Indiana Jones films. Max and her colleagues have a gloriously incongruous swagger. As Max declares at one point (and I imagine her with hands on hips, silhouetted against a blazing sky):
I certainly wasn’t where I should be and [leaving] would be the cautious, the sensible thing to do. But, for God’s sake, I was an historian and cautious and sensible were things that happened to other people.
Attagirl! Now, I have to admit that this is very much a geeky book for geeky people. If you never break the bounds of Great Literary Fiction, this probably won’t be your thing. But if you’re a history buff of any variety, or have a weakness for gentle English absurdities (think Terry Pratchett, or anything by Jasper Fforde), you might well enjoy these. Taylor actually self-published this first St Mary’s novel, although it was then picked up by Accent Press, and she’s been producing follow-up stories pretty regularly for the past five years, so I really hope there’s plenty of adventure left for the Institute’s historians. I think I’m going to enjoy this series…
Obviously I’d love to say that, behind the sober facade of the British Museum, this is what we’re actually up to. Last week? Renaissance Florence. Next week? Caravaggio’s Rome. Mmm-hmm. If only! Taylor’s books scratch an itch that all historians have, deep down. After all, to get one of us going, all you need to do is pose the question: ‘So, if you had a time machine, where would you go?’ Answers on a postcard, please.
P.S. I’m amazed to see a lot of critical reviews on Goodreads. Lots of people found the writing irregular and the plot incomprehensible. The plot didn’t bother me at all: it was a series of madcap vignettes, after all. And yes, one particular betrayal did feel very out-of-character, but I shrugged and took that in my stride. Am I just being very indulgent because this novel gives me historian wish-fulfillment? Who knows. But I thought it was great fun. We’ll see what I make of the other books once the ‘squeeee!’ novelty has worn off.