For the time-traveling Oxford historians, the Middle Ages are a ten. Forbidden. Off-limits. Too dangerous. And if they were to send a historian to the Medieval period, they certainly wouldn’t send a woman. Women of that era didn’t travel alone, and if they did, they were vulnerable to attack. But history undergraduate Kivrin Engle is determined to go, and she pleads with James Dunworthy, one of the professors who runs the time travel project, to help her prepare. When the head of the history department is on holiday, his replacement, Gilchrist, gets the 14th century downgraded to a six, and Kivrin leaps on the chance to travel to 1320.
Shortly after Kivrin moves through the net and into the past, Badri Chaudhuri, the tech who’s running the drop, realizes that something is wrong, but he becomes deliriously ill before he can tell Dunworthy what’s happened. Kivrin, back in the 14th century, is similarly delirious, her translator doesn’t seem to be working, and nothing is as she expected it to be.
This novel by Connie Willis gets off to a frenetic start, with characters dashing all over, trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. It’s exciting, but overwhelming. There’s altogether too much focus on all these professors and their squabbles and not nearly enough on Kivrin. Who is in the past. Sick. And just a few years before the Black Death. The story felt a trifle off-balance is what I’m saying.
But then, not quite a fourth of the way in, the story settles down, and what a great novel it becomes. Willis continues to shift between the two time periods, but the balance shifts more toward Kivrin (or seems to anyway–I didn’t keep a page or chapter count). And I grew to care a little more about the Oxford story.
Connie Willis passed my first test for a writer about the Middle Ages by not referring to the period as the Dark Ages. And her vision of the period seems plausible, although I’m no expert. Focusing on a small village and on aspects of life that wouldn’t make it into recorded history helps. Willis gets around historians’ quibbles by letting her historian be surprised by what she finds. The historical details that are important are those surrounding the Black Death, and by the time we get that far, the historical details matter to the reader less than the emotional ones. (And she appears to have gotten the basics of the history right when it comes to the plague.)
It’s hard to imagine living through a plague that killed as much as 60 percent of the population. It would mean watching one person after another after another die, painfully and miserably, wondering who would be next. Willis ingeniously brings the idea of plague-level mortality into the present day (actually, the near-ish future) by paralleling Kivrin’s story with a pandemic in Oxford. It’s a handy plot device because it keeps the characters from helping Kivrin, but it also shows how, even after 700 years of scientific advances, sickness and death are inescapable. People of all times suffer and die. The details might differ, and today we can prevent many deaths that would wipe out a Medieval community, but the fact of death remains. And the reactions people have are the same. People look to place blame–on God, on the government, on sin, on medical science. At the heart of it all is the big question: Why?
Willis does some interesting things with these questions. I’m still chewing over some of the ways Father Roche, the Medieval priest who nurses the sick alongside Kivrin, understands the events. It harks back in some ways to The Sparrow and the logical inconsistency of thanking God for the good things but not blaming God for the bad. Kivrin’s presence is the result of a whole chain of things going wrong, and they end up leading to a great right for this one community, and especially this one man.
Although this book doesn’t delve as deeply into these questions as The Sparrow, there’s lots of philosophical stuff to chew on. But what made this book work for me was watching the characters, especially Kivrin and Father Roche, grow to rely on and love each other. Kivrin’s relationship with the children, Agnes and Rosamund, is just as gratifying. Against this backdrop of suffering, these relationships are lovely and heart-wrenching, and I shed a tear or two near the end. And in Oxford, we get the more comic pairing of Dunworthy and Colin, grand-nephew of Mary, an Oxford medical doctor. Colin’s never-ending gobstopper and apocalyptically necrotic slang provide some much-needed moments of levity, but even these moments are touched by tragedy. It is, after all, a book about doomsday; the doom that awaits us all.