With the exception of the Terminator flicks, I prefer my time travel to be more on the comedic side. There’s something about the premise that I find hard buy into, be it the crazy paradoxes or the thousands of questions that generally come with the idea of, “but if I go back in time and do this, what happens?” Give me Kung Fury instead! I’d rather just laugh than accidentally scrutinize the science behind it (looking at you, Interstellar).
Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor hits my sweet spot then. It primarily wants to be funny and even handwaves the bigger time travel quandaries so we don’t have to think about them ever again. Perfect.
Ms. Maxwell has a bunch of learning in history—the expensive, lengthy kind that will net you a job as either a professor at a fine college or the best darn McDonalds manager in this United States—and gets an invite to a very abnormal historical research facility called St. Mary’s. As luck would have it, St. Mary’s has a bunch of time-travel devices, and their job is to chronicle the nonsense that happened far in the past. Think the battle of Troy or the construction of fancy, super historical walls that I can’t remember the names of.
The problem is twofold. The first bit is that history doesn’t like to be tampered with, so this job is actually very, very dangerous, and the second bit is that time-traveling terrorists exist.
Here’s the thing though: Those two problems don’t make sense when paired together. History does bite back as the novel quickly shows us—and just as quickly forgets about, I might add—meaning that the terrorists can’t really do anything. Events have to happen a certain way, so it’s not like they can go back in time and prevent Hitler from killing himself (hello Godwin’s law in a review).
It sort of makes the latter half of the book a bit nonsensical.
The first half though, that part is great! It reminds me of Harry Potter in a way, where we follow Maxwell down a very bizarre rabbit hole and learn alongside her. There are plenty of characters to get to know, some fun concepts, and while there’s no real sense of danger, the levity of the book makes that unimportant.
Plus, I’ve never seen time travel handled this way. I like it.
I also really like Maxwell. I’ll full-on admit that she’s at least half a Mary Sue, but her sense of humor eases some of the sting of a character whose not only really smart but also solves all of her problems pretty quickly. She doesn’t struggle much through the first half of the book, but that only casually bothered me. I was having too much fun to care.
But here’s the cold, hard truth about our heroine: Her two biggest flaws are she’s a bit of an alcoholic and she’s a bit socially stupid. Normally those would be big problems, but here the first one happens mostly off screen and the second is only ever played off for laughs. I never got the sense of either, especially from a girl who gets drunk off of one margarita. You cannot be a boozehound and get knackered off of one drink (I know from experience).
She’s also very stoic, and while the book tries to play this off as a negative at points, it only ever feels like a net gain on her behalf. It means she can roll with the punches and deal with high-stress environments better than most. It also means she shows no fear in the face of danger.
I really want to upsell the front half of this book though, with its silly drama, crazy cast of characters, and few choice sex scenes that are darn well written, if not a little fictitious in tenacity. Because after the front half, Just One Damned Thing After Another takes a pretty steep dive.
Without hitting any spoilers, the novel tries to create some very strong, very tonally inconsistent drama between Maxwell and another main character. I never bought into it. The character in question isn’t a saint, but what he attempts to do came so far out of left field that I lost all suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that Maxwell deals with him very quickly and without any real incident.
From there on out, all of the drama around Maxwell comes off as fake, like the characters aren’t acting like they should. From one turn to the next, I could feel the author manipulating the people she had so painstakingly created, forcing them to do what the plot needed. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.
And hell, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were a point to it, but Maxwell doesn’t suffer all that much. She hits rock bottom at one point, but the brunt of that happens off screen. Call me a sadist, but I do want my protagonists to have a rough time in the books I read. I also want to see it! Neither really happens here.
By the end of the novel, I found myself viewing it rather cynically. Maxwell does some very Mary Sue things because she’s very clever and accidents work in her favor, and we end on a high note. I’m left thinking of this particular comic. Yes, as an English major wouldn’t it be amazing if I could use my powers to save the world! Of course it would. However, I wouldn’t go and write a book about that because no one would want to read it.
This novel never hits those levels, but it makes me think about them. It makes me question some of the characters and the writing, and that’s not exactly a good thing.
It’s a shame too, because the front half really is good and lots of fun. There’s enough here to make me recommend Just One Damned Thing After Another, especially since I tore through it in a few days, but damn does it make some disappointing decisions.