Sunday, December 24, 2017

Doomsday Book: Connie Willis

This book is set at Christmas. It may not contain much merriness and the festivities may be muted, but Christmas is there throughout the story.

Doomsday Book is the first novel in the Oxford Time Travel Series by Connie Willis. The story begins in the 2050s when time travel has been successful in some cases, but is in the hands of historians at Oxford University. Kivrin Engel, a student in the Mediaeval History department at Brasenose College, is preparing to go back to the Middle Ages, 1320 to be exact, and Professor James Dunworthy is helping her, even though he thinks the trip is unsafe. After Kivrin has been transferred back in time, the story is told in alternating sections, following Kivrin's experiences in the earlier time, and Dunworthy's efforts to recover her from the past.

As soon as the transfer has been made, Dunworthy suspects there is a problem with the drop. Badri, the technician who handled the transfer, comes down with a serious disease and cannot tell them what happened. Dr. Mary Ahrens who works in the infirmary is a friend of Dunworthy. The disease turns into an epidemic and she is soon consumed with caring for the sick and tracking down the origin of the disease.  Her niece's son is visiting her for Christmas and Dunworthy ends up watching after twelve-year old Colin.

That is the bare bones of the plot, although I have left out any hint of what Kivrin encounters in her travels. I would say about equal time is given to each time period. The book begins a few days before Christmas, so that Kivrin will have identifiable events to determine when she should be ready to be picked up and returned to her own time.

My thoughts:

I loved this book. I liked the characters and the way the story is told. It will go on my shelf of books to reread. Yet the story is not perfect by any means.

Strong points:

  • The characterization is very good. In addition to the characters mentioned above, there are many other wonderful characters in both time periods. Both primary and secondary characters are well defined. Various types of relationships are explored with these characters.
  • The author conveys the conditions of the Middle Ages very well, and I now want to read more mysteries set in that timeframe. 
  • This book has many parts that are just overwhelmingly sad, and that is primarily what I remember about it. But the entire book is not like that; although the events in both time lines are serious in tone there is also humor. 

Weak points:

  • Pacing is a problem, especially in the James Dunworthy time period. There is a lot of repetition and stalling. But I still enjoyed reading those portions, just got a bit irritated.


  • There is not much explanation of time travel or its issues. I don't think that was the point of this book, but it is worth mentioning. If the reader is looking for technical explanations or discussions, this isn't the book to read.
  • I cannot point to any specific issues, but readers have complained about incorrect use of terminology for the UK setting in some of the Oxford Time Travel series. I did not encounter any such criticism of this book. 

I think any reader's enjoyment will depend on what they are looking for in this book. For me, the book was exactly what I wanted and expected, and the good points outweighed the bad, which were merely minor annoyances.

If you are interested in the series, this overview at Alan J. Chick's Pages looks to be a good resource. It tells more than I want to know about the books I haven't read, so I haven't read it all.

This page at Connie Willis's blog gives a more concise overview of the series: Oxford Time Travel Guide.

Doomsday Book was preceded by “Fire Watch”, a novelette, that is the first story in the Oxford Time Travel series. It was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Feb 1982, and was later reprinted in the collection Fire Watch. I haven't read it and don't know if it is a good place to start, but I have a copy ordered. "Fire Watch" won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It is available online here. Susan D. at Joie de Livre first pointed me to this story.


Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, 1992
Length:      445 pages (of very tiny print)
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #1
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      I purchased my copy.
Dust jacket illustration by Tim Jacobus.


Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: I have not read time travel in a long time. Maybe it is time to try this book.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like an interesting exploration of time travel, Tracy. And I always appreciate it when book has strong characters. I'm very glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.

col2910 said...

Tracy, not one for me thanks.

Susan D said...

I read this some years ago, perhaps my first Connie Willis, and enjoyed it a lot, but foolishly passed it on to another reader. Now, having devoured the rest of the Oxford Time Travel books, I really need to track down another copy for a reread.

Thanks for the link to Alan Chick's site. (Oh, and to my site. :^))

TracyK said...

And a happy new year to you, Bill. I am now reading To Say Nothing of the Dog by the same author, which is much more cheerful and fun.

TracyK said...

I was glad I enjoyed it too, Margot, because it is a longer book... 450ish pages in the edition I read, with tiny print. I had liked Connie Willis's short stories, but now having read one of her novels, I am a confirmed fan.

TracyK said...

This definitely has some of the elements you avoid: historical novel, some sci fi (although not much in this one). There is grit but it is not crime related. So no, not your kind of book.

TracyK said...

I am definitely holding on to my copy of Doomsday Book, Susan, even though it wasn't the easiest to read (tiny print, etc). I am now halfway through To Say Nothing of the Dog and I can tell these are going to books I will reread. I will be reading Fire Watch soonish.

Clothes In Books said...

I think you mentioned this one when I was reading Minette Walters' book about the Black Death. I can't decide whether to continue with Connie Willis - there are many features I like (along with some issues...) but they are so long!

TracyK said...

Willis's Time Travel books are long, Moira, and this one seemed even longer in some sections. I loved it anyway.

I recently finished To Say Nothing of the Dog. Loved it too. The cat, the dog, the human characters are all perfect. And funny too, although it took me a quarter of the book to get engaged.