As I've mentioned earlier, I'm on a bit of a Connie Willis binge. It all started with To Say Nothing of the Dog, and before you know it, I was hooked on Willis' time-traveling Oxford historians.
I read Blackout, All Clear (read my reviews of those books here), and even a couple of Willis' non-time-travel sci-fi tales--Passage and Lincoln's Dreams.
But I finally found Doomsday Book at my local library, and plunged into one of the most compelling books I've ever read.
Kivrin is a young history student in 2048 Oxford who is determined to go back in time to visit 14th century England. That's despite the misgivings of her mentor and instructor, Mr. Dunworthy, who obviously feels a fatherly affection and concern for the young woman.
The Middle Ages were an extremely dangerous time. So many things could go wrong, from fatal disease to raping and marauding highwaymen. Not to mention messed-up time travel.
The best-laid plans...
But the Oxford time travelers are nothing if not prepared for just about any contingency. Kivrin has been vaccinated against everything, including Bubonic Plague, which isn't even supposed to happen until quite a few years after her visit.
She's also been schooled in every detail of how a young woman was supposed to act and look in 1320, including lessons in horseback riding, spinning wool, and embroidery--and she's even had a chip implanted that will interpret what passed as the English language in those days.
But if everything went smoothly, there would be no story. And believe me, everything does NOT go smoothly.
Problems in the future...
While Kivrin is trying to survive in the Middle Ages, there's a terrible problem in 2048 Oxford--a fast-moving epidemic of a deadly and baffling disease. It ends up striking many of the people that are concerned with getting Kivrin back to the future, including Mr. Dunworthy.
The juxtaposition of the desperate crises in two separate realities makes for some extraordinarily intense and compelling reading.
At the same time, I like Willis' ability to provide lighter moments to offset the drama. She's able to narrate even such a heavy tale in a calm and even matter-of-fact way.
An admirable heroine
I really liked Kivrin. Her courage, compassion and endurance blossoms under the most dreadful circumstances.
Mr. Dunworthy has become a favorite of mine as well, thanks to his very real concern for his historians.
And you've got to love 12-year-old Colin Templer, who provides some of the lighter moments in the book...and who also figures prominently in All Clear.
As a Christian, I had a bit of a problem with Mr. Dunworthy's identifying with God the Father's concern for the mistreatment of his Son. While reading scripture at a church service, he relates his desire to rescue Kivrin from the Middle Ages to God wanting to rescue Jesus from the cruelty he suffered on the cross.
This theme runs through Dunworthy's compulsion to find any way possible to get Kivrin out of her predicament. It's faulty, though--because Christians know that Jesus' death was the heart of the divine plan of redemption. God wouldn't have wanted to rescue him, because his death was the means of the world's salvation.
It's a minor quibble as far as the story goes, though.
And one of the real heroes of the story is the priest in the village where Kivrin ends up. Though poor, illiterate, and unable to preach flowery and eloquent sermons, his tireless compassion and love for his flock mark him as a genuine man of God. Father Roche will touch your heart.
Doomsday Book was ultimately uplifting and hopeful. I have to agree with this assessment from the amazon.com review:
The book, which won Hugo and Nebula Awards, draws upon Willis' understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to those of you who are fascinated with history and time travel, and who don't mind staying up late to read a story that won't let you go.
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