Thursday, July 23, 2015
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is another time travel book from Connie Willis. It takes place, chronologically, before the events of Blackout/All Clear, with a couple of the same characters. Like those books, we switch back and forth between the 'present' (Oxford University in our future) and a time period in the past, in this case, the Middle Ages. As with Blackout/All Clear, the historic period depicted reads like historic fiction, with great care taken in depicting the life and society of that era. I didn't find this book quite as compelling as Blackout/All Clear, but it was also much less confusing, with only a single character in the past that we had to follow. Nevertheless, it was a good story, with a bit of a mystery of sorts, and interesting characters.
The historic portion of the book follows a female historian, Kivrin, who goes back to the middle ages to observe how people lived. In the 'present', Professor Dunworthy - the top historian - is opposed to sending her, because he doesn't think enough research has been done to ensure the 'drop' is safe. But the head of the department is off on holiday, and the professor left in charge okays the drop - in fact, he is in charge of it and dismisses Dunworthy's fears. So Kivrin goes, and when she arrives she is very sick, with a high fever, and cannot remember the location of the drop, for when it's time for her to go back.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford, there is a flu epidemic and the drop technician who sent Kivrin falls deathly ill, but not before he reaches Dunworthy to say only "Something's wrong." Dunworthy has to deal with his colleagues falling ill, housing a team of American bell ringers on holiday to England (who are quarantined along with the rest of Oxford), desperately trying to find his missing department head, and fretting over Kivrin.
Kivrin is dealing with her own issues, once she recovers from her own illness. It seems that other people are also falling ill, but they have different symptoms than what Kivrin had, and she struggles to come to grips with what is actually happening. And, she still has to figure out some way of finding the drop site, so she can return to her own present time.
One of Willis' fortes is her ability to weave humor throughout the book, even in the midst of tense situations. She does so perfectly in this book. There are several characters at Oxford that provide some much needed comic relief, including the bell ringers, and Dunworthy's secretary (who is massively concerned about the lack of supplies, especially 'lavatory paper.')
There is no real comic relief in Kivrin's part of the story, but there are sympathetic characters that we come to know and love. There are also some not so sympathetic characters. All are very believable. Again, Willis does a masterful job of capturing the living conditions of the era, as well as the language difficulties - people back then didn't speak English as we know it (read Chaucer in the original, and you'll see how incomprehensible it is!) The descriptions of the home and the village reinforces my belief that I'm glad I didn't live then! Dark, cold and smelly pretty much sums it up.
Fans of time travel stories will enjoy this, and even fans of historical fiction should find the Kivrin-based story enthralling.