Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

It’s hard to say this book was fun, since it involved more violently ill characters than any other book I can think of… but it’s a page turner and yes, a lot of fun too.   Time travel, the Middle Ages, plague, and Christmas – what more can you want in a book?

Connie Willis received both a Hugo and Nebula award for this book.  Written in 1992, it takes place around 2050 when Oxford University has a lab they use to transport historians to various times.  Kivrin is a young historian who’s planning to go to the year 1320 for a couple of weeks.  Her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is horrified that Oxford would send a young woman alone into medieval times where she could be raped or murdered or burned at the stake.  But he’s overruled and after extensive training and preparation, off she goes.  She’ll need to return in two weeks to the exact same place when the net will reopen and pull her back.

After Kivrin is sent back in time, a mysterious flu virus hits most of the technicians in the lab, leaving unanswered questions about Kivrin’s safe arrival.  On Kivrin’s end, she becomes seriously ill and passes out at the “drop” site.  She’s rescued but she has no idea where she is or where the drop was.

The book is maddeningly light on how time travel works, though a “net” somehow prevents time travel paradoxes.  There’s a net, and a fix, and a drop, and that’s about all I could tell.  And it seemed pretty unrealistic that a traveler would have to get to an exact spot at an exact time in order to return.  

Also, future life doesn’t seem terribly futuristic in this world where time travel is accepted technology.  Basically life seemed exactly the same as it would have been when the book was written, except for the use of video-phone (which never seems to actually work in this book).  In fact it’s got a very old-timey feel to it – but maybe that’s exactly how Oxford does feel.

Willis doesn’t spend a lot of time on the big picture issues related to time travel, like the time travel paradox.  Instead she spends time on the small details, like language and dress and medicine.  Kivrin is implanted with a translator so she sounds like she’s speaking the language of the time, although she still has to make sure what she’s saying makes sense.  She has a detailed cover story about who she is and why she’s traveling alone.  All her planning and training helps keep this story realistic, since Kivrin has to face a lot of challenges.

It’s worth noting here that author Charlie Stross wrote a blog post about how few books feature women as intentional time travelers, because of course the past is always viewed as too limiting for them.  Doomsday Book is noted as a very rare exception.

I loved the side characters, especially Agnes and Colin.  Agnes is the young daughter, about six, of the family Kivrin resides with, and Colin is a sometimes-annoying twelve year old who ends up staying with Mr. Dunworthy (and who finds everything “necrotic”).   Many writers don’t write children well; but Agnes and Colin have really vivid voices and their dialogue really reflects their ages.

This book is long and quite repetitive at times – but where Willis really excels is in telling a dramatic story with a lot of emotion and vivid detail, and in creating characters that are funny and sympathetic.  This story may be short on scientific detail but I loved the characters and by the end I could not put it down.

Willis really brings the Black Death to life in this book.  It’s extremely unpleasant to read about, and yet it’s a fun ride of a book all the same.  Highly recommended for anyone who likes a good time travel story.

Note: I read this book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

  9 comments for “Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

  1. May 24, 2019 at 12:47 am

    Time travel usually does my head in, I’m glad you enjoyed this though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. May 24, 2019 at 12:52 am

    I love Doomsday Book! But I’ve only read it twice because it’s so heartbreaking. I adore Colin and Agnes, and also her big sister. Are you planning to read the ‘sequel,’ To Say Nothing of the Dog? I’ve read that many times, because it is just sheer fun the whole time.

    • May 24, 2019 at 9:14 am

      I actually read that one first! I hate to read things out of order but these books seem loosely related. To Say Nothing of the Dog was great fun. Now I need to read Blackout.

  3. May 24, 2019 at 10:44 am

    Have you read Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s? Believe you me, the women time travellers there would laugh if anyone suggested that they were limited by anything. As Max remarks as Miss North belts Herodotus around the head with a wooden tray, “you can take the girl out of the twenty-first century but you can’t take the twenty-first century out of the girl”.

  4. May 25, 2019 at 3:43 am

    Oh, I love Doomsday Book so much! One of my all-time favourites. In terms of female time-travellers, there are tons in The Psychology of Time Travel – though admittedly that book is mostly about travel to the future, not the past.

  5. June 2, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I really, really liked this, but then I have a Thing for educationally-organised time travel. I just loved the whole concept of going back in time for research purposes. Have you read The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.? That’s an amazing example.

    I’ve bought To Say Nothing of the Dog,w hich is another of Connie Willis’ time travel books, but I haven’t read it yet.

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