Book Review: The Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel #1) by Connie Willis
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received. But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.
Holy guacamole. This book, guys–this book–is absolutely crazy. Time travel, bell ringers, political agendas, and can I just say, I have never fretted about a man on his fishing trip more than I did while reading this book.
Yep, that’s right. A man on his stupid fishing trip.
I think the CIA could take pointers from Basingame on how to disappear because dang. That man did not want to be disturbed on his holiday.
Anyway, back to the point. To call this book anything but masterful would be an insult. The parallels alone are marvelous, with the two times (the 14th century and the near future) almost mirroring each other in their responses to, well, everything. In both eras, you have the distrustful, the ones with political agendas, the religious zealots, the people only looking out for themselves, the selfless helpers, etc. And to have it laid out so simply as the narrative bounces back and forth between the two times only reinforces how little things have changed. One era might use horses and the other has cars, and in the beginning (if you’re like me), you’ll be swept up in how utterly foreign and different the two times are, but watch the people. Because while the times are different, at their core, at their very center, people are still the same, and Willis does an absolutely fantastic job of exploring and revealing that by showing how people respond to a crisis. I won’t launch into specifics and spoil the story, but I will warn you again: watch the people. They’re the true crux of the story.
The characters are the stars of this book, but I had to marvel at the attention to detail as well. Willis takes the stereotypical time-travel narrative and dissects it down, doing the most realistic interpretation of time-travel I’ve read yet as she builds her story. She nods to the changes in dialect and language, the hygiene habits, the social order, and she does it all so marvelously that it’s seen rather than told. And that’s one of the marks of a truly gifted storyteller: seeing how things are rather than being told through narration. It makes for a much stronger story and Willis has mastered it, because those little details crop up when you least expect them, and her ability to draw you in, to paint a past era and a future one with those little brushstrokes of detail is truly genius.
This book absolutely deserves 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of those late-nights, can’t-put-it-down reads that drew me in and left me a jumbled mess of feels at the end of it all. I heartily recommend it to anyone–whether you enjoy science fiction or not–because this book is more about what it means to be a human. About how, when you look at it, whether you’re from a different time or place, we’re all just people in the end.