Doomsday Book

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.

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24 Responses to Doomsday Book

  1. Lisa says:

    I remember reading about this book (and To Say Nothing of the Dog) on Marzipan, and I think I had copies by that afternoon. I’ve come to think of the chaotic opening as a Connie Willis trademark – with all the characters and the fast-moving dialogue.

    I’m not a medievalist, but I agree with you about how she handles the history.

    • Teresa says:

      I remember the opening of TSNotD also being chaotic, but it didn’t feel unbalanced the way this one did. I do really like the way she just throws you into the situation.

      I imagine a medievalist could find things to complain about, but the tight focus on a small community made whatever errors there are seem more plausible.

  2. Tony says:

    I’m not a big fan of sci-fi/fantasy, but I am tempted by Connie Willis’ books – especially as one partially is set in my hometown :)

  3. mumble says:

    “The Doomsday Book” has one problem: it’s the best Connie Willis there is, so anything else is downhill from there. Except, possibly, “To Say Nothing of the Dog”.

    • Teresa says:

      Alas, I’ve read TSNofD also (and like it a little better but in a completely different way), so I guess it really it downhill all the way. But from what Jenny tells me, it’s not a steep dive downhill :)

      • Lisa says:

        I don’t think it’s all downhill by any means, not with Passage, and Bellwether, and Blackout/All Clear, and definitely Uncharted Territory. I nearly missed a flight, because I was reading that on the train to the airport and didn’t notice my stop.

      • Teresa says:

        That’s certainly good to hear, Lisa. I know Jenny’s partial to some of the ones you mention. I’m thinking Passage will be my next.

      • mumble says:

        “Bellwether” is fun: the Connie Willis Minutiae (CWM) are about fads and are richly entertaining.

        “Uncharted Territory” is a definite no-no for me: this one is straight sci-fi (interplanetary exploration, dealing with aliens), whereas, despite all the sci-fi awards she has won, I would characterise Connie Willis generally as using sci-fi just enough to set her up with a canvas for the rest of the story, which is the way I like it. The anti-PC theme is fun and, because it’s Connie Willis, it’s intelligent as good as sci-fi gets, but it’s still just straight sci-fi. When I read it, I assumed (wrongly) that we were in juvenilia territory.

        In “Lincoln’s Dreams” the CWM are Civil War snippets:

        Q. Why did General Longstreet wear one boot and one carpet-slipper to the Battle of Antietam?

        A. Because one of his heels had a blister.

        The CWM are, as always, fun (in this case, I think, the more so if you are more of a Civil War buff than I am) but the supporting story is below par. The repetition eventually got to me, likewise the lack of SFCs (if they ever make a movie, Frances McDormand will not be in it). Plus, the ending seems strained and contrived. My guess is that some of the customary editing iterations were trashed to meet a deadline, or some such thing.

        By far preferable is Florence King on how to be shown around a Civil War battlefield by a Southern gentleman: a rollicking afternoon ends with the lady in question being boompsed to the strains of “The Bonnie Blue Flag”.

  4. I loved Blackout, and The Doomsday Book has been on my list for ages. Based on your review, I think this sounds really good, even though the story feels a bit off-balance.

  5. Your thoughts explain why I have struggled to get into this book! I have started it a couple of times and was put off by the chaos, but now that I know the story gets more focused I think I will have to give it another try.

  6. aartichapati says:

    I am so excited to read this with Marg next month! I hope I enjoy it like crazy :-)

  7. Stefanie says:

    This is the first Willis book I read. It was a long time ago and the details are really fuzzy but I do remember that I loved it.

  8. Oh, I keep thinking I need to try me some Connie Willis. What should I start with, if I do?

    • mumble says:

      1. To Say Nothing of the Dog.
      2. The Doomsday Book.
      3. Passage.
      4. Bellwether.

      Don’t read “Passage” and “Bellwether” too close together, because the female protagonists are too similar.

    • Teresa says:

      I also think To Say Nothing of the Dog is a good place to start, especially if you’ve read Three Men in a Boat.

  9. Christy says:

    I did find it frustrating how much Willis dwelt on the confusion of her characters. Sometimes it seemed too much of people asking the same questions over and over and always receiving fragmented, cryptic responses. I get that we are supposed to feel the frustration of the characters as readers, but she could have pared down some of those sections. That said, when the book settles down with Kivrin’s story in the village, I was definitely invested.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought the earlier chapters could have used some trimming. And even later on, there was sometimes too much repetition in the future storyline. But overall it was a really great book, and those problems felt pretty minor when considering what I liked.

    • mum61e says:

      Asking the same questions over and over and always receiving fragmented, cryptic responses is a Connie Willis trademark. You’ll find it done successfully in “Passage” and unsuccessfully in “Lincoln’s Dreams”.

  10. boardinginmyforties says:

    I have this one on my shelf and have been meaning to read Willis for some time. While not perfect, this book seems to be one to enjoy.

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