The first book in The Chronicles of St Mary’s, “Just One Damn Thing After Another” was a triumph of originality, introducing us to the world of intrepid, if chaotic, British historians risking their lives to witness past events first hand.
Chronologically, “A Symphony of Echoes” carries straight on from where the first book left off but the tone of the second book is quite different and, sadly, not quite as satisfying.
This is a darker book than its predecessor. There is less games-playing and amusingly clever trickery and more killing and death.
In this novel, Max, the plucky if unstable woman the first book followed from Trainee to Historian, has become part of management and shows an allegiance to St. Mary’s that borders on the fanatical. Under her leadership, it becomes clear that although St. Mary’s appears to be an institution filled with eccentric individuals who muddle through while creating madcap mayhem, it is actually capable of being ruthless, even murderous. Its enemies are hacked to pieces, shot in the back, abducted and executed. It is even willing to go to great lengths to throw a woman in harm’s way to ensure that the “right” historical path, the one that protects St. Mary’s, is taken.
I found myself thinking that this was a St Mary’s that I would not be inclined to support.
“A Symphony of Echoes” shares many of the same strengths as its predecessor: it is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and it depicts bravery and loyalty in a way that made me want to be brave and loyal. Where the first book read as a novel, with a beginning, a middle and an end, this book abandons that structure and is the worse for it. “A Symphony of Echoes” is literally a chronicle, a record of important events in the order in which they occurred. It is a picaresque piece, following whatever happens to Max, without imposing any deeper narrative thrust or emotional or intellectual leitmotiv. While each episode was well described, I found the lack of unity frustrating.
I also found that some of the emotional trauma Max was pushed through seemed contrived and distorted, designed to build sympathy for Max and St Mary’s without ever really saying why either deserves it.
“A Symphony of Echoes” is still a good read, but unless the third book returns closer to the form of the first, “The Chronicles of St. Mary’s” and I will part company.
By the way, the title refers to another definition of history: “History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard. It is a poem with events as verses.
I’m hoping that this novel has some echoes I haven’t heard yet and which the third book will make clear.