Connie Willis is an author I had heard of but never picked up. The only books I saw were American imports with poorly designed covers and, I’m sorry to say, this really put me off. I wondered why a ten-time Hugo award-winning writer didn’t have, at that time, a UK publisher. In 2011 Connie won her eleventh Hugo for Blackout/All clear which Gollancz picked up and since then has begun to publish some of her backlist in their SF Masterworks series. The Doomsday Book stood out to me and I finally took the plunge. I’m so glad I did.
In 2054, Oxford is sending historians back in time to observe history first hand. The time zones are given a rating, from one to ten, on how dangerous they can be for a time traveller. Young historian Kivrin Engle wants to visit the Middle Ages but the 14th Century has been classified a ten and her tutor, James Dunsworthy, tries to explain to explain to her the dangers of this time period –lawlessness and disease – but also how hard it would be for a 21st Century woman to blend in. None of this can deter her and she begins to learn all she can about the time. When Professor Gilchrist and the Medieval department offer her a chance to travel, without the clearance of Dunsworthy, she takes it. It’s clear that Medieval haven’t taken care and had rushed through the drop and because of this Kivrin misses Oxford 1320 and instead lands in Oxford 1348, the year of the Black Plague. Kivrin’s prep for 1320 is useless and quickly has to adapt to culture and dialogue changes without knowing why.
Dunsworthy is told “something’s wrong” by the technician Badri, as he falls extremely ill, but that is all he is able to find out. Before Dunsworthy can investigate, the rest of the team and town come down with the same sickness and it’s not long before Oxford is under quarantine.
Although Kivrin is inoculated against the plague, in 1348, she knows if she stays and helps the others she meets she will miss the net’s opening and her only chance to escape back to her own time. In 2054 Dunsworthy, who is forced into helping by housing the sick, knows he will not get back to the lab in time to open the net. This provides the backdrop for a thrilling conclusion.
There are a few aspects to the book which makes it dated, for example, in Dunsworthy’s future Oxford, Woolworths is still a thriving business but none of these hinder the story and to some degree endeared me more to Connie’s writing. I have seen a lot of bad reviews for Connie’s books in the past based on errors she makes while talking about different time periods, whether it be the future or the past. I have found these types of reviews a bit absurd as I, nor anyone I know, have been into the past or the future. Also errors on clothing or mannerisms don’t impede on the narrative or character development in my opinion which makes such observations moot.
The introduction from author Adam Roberts says to stick with it, to remember at comes good in the end but for me this book never misses a trick due to the depth of likeable characters. Even when there’s nothing going on, that pushes the story along; there is something you can get involved in. It’s this that puts this book in the five star rating. I cared about these characters in the same way Kivrin and Dunsworthy cares, by being thrown in at the deep end without the knowledge of how they would or could meet again. Kivrin is surprised by how much she becomes involved. She knows in her time they have been long in the ground but because she experiences the way of life, she can’t help but care. The same thing happened to me. I had to care because they seem so real. Not many books can glue me to a page like this one did. This book has introduced me to a new author. My bank balance may not like it but I do