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Plan for the Worst (SF) - Jodi Taylor ****

The publisher classifies this book as fantasy, but as it is based on one of the classic SF tropes, time travel - and this is done by technology, rather than magic - it can sensibly be classified as science fiction.

The book features St Mary's, an institute of history attached to a fictional university, where the historians research the realities of history using time machines. While not a particularly original idea - Bill and Ted did their history homework this way a long time ago - it's quite nicely set up with a Time Police organisation that is technically on the same side as the historians, but in practice is often in opposition, plus a couple of dastardly time travellers who are intent on messing with the St Mary's bunch, up to and including committing murder.

I did have a slight problem coming to Plan for the Worst as it's book 11 in a series - I sympathise with Jodi Taylor in trying to make the opening accessible to someone who hasn't read the series before, yet not overdoing the old ground. It would have been useful to have a bit more background on St Mary's and the time pods, and I did struggle with the sheer size of the cast - this could have been kept down a little, at least initially.

There was a real problem giving this book a star rating. It has some distinct flaws. It's significantly too long, spending far too much time on describing mundane activities in unnecessary detail. It's episodic - there's an opening visit to a store area in the pre-European Americas that really doesn't contribute anything, for example. It was only after this, around 100 pages in, that the book really seemed to get going. And the humour is juvenile, laid on far too thickly. I initially thought it was a children's book because of the relentless nature of the attempts to be funny in the narration, but the protagonist is a middle-aged woman and the themes sometimes adult, so I was a bit adrift on the target audience. I certainly didn't understand the way the blurb likens the book to Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series may also have some humour, but are far more sophisticated and dark in the way it's used.

Because of the above, I was all set to give the book just three stars, but what rescued it were the set pieces. The murder investigation, the Tower of London and Crete - particularly Crete - were really well handled and draw the reader in. These are five star sections, bringing up the overall score. There's also some quite clever playing around with time and time streams. This is something that, for example, Dr Who hardly ever does as it can be hard to follow. It's used effectively in the movie Looper, but that takes a couple of watchings to get on top of - it's handled well here.

So, it's a strange mix. If I'm honest, I wasn't drawn in enough to go back and start the series from the beginning, but after initially being close to giving up when faced with the relentless jokiness, I  did enjoy those set pieces enough to make it a satisfying read.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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