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 travelling 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.
Whelp, this book will hit you right in your feelings.
Doomsday Book has been on my TBR for a long time, and it’s the kind of book I’ve been saving because I was certain it would be a 5 star read and a new all-time favourite based on the many other reviews I’d seen. As you can see from my rating I did really enjoy this book, and it’ll definitely stay with me, but before I sing its praises I need to talk about what prevented it from being a 5 star read: the blurb.
Thankfully it’s not the blurb above, so you’re safe to read it if you haven’t yet read this book, but the blurb on the back of my edition (which is the edition above, oddly) outright tells the reader something that isn’t revealed until you’re about 70% of the way through the book. Way to completely ruin the twist, blurb!
The worst thing is I can’t even say whether the twist is fairly obvious anyway because I didn’t have the opportunity to read the book without knowing it, and it’s really annoying. I got frustrated with characters I might not have been frustrated with if I hadn’t seen that blurb because I spent 2/3s of the novel waiting for them to realise what I already knew, and that’s a real shame.
Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about that now! Instead, let’s talk about what I liked about this book, because there was a lot.
Doomsday Book takes place in Oxford in the 2050s, in a time when we’ve mastered time travel and historians are able to travel back in time to do their research. Student Kivrin has managed to convince her professors to let her go back to the Middle Ages, despite its dangers (including the obvious one of her being a woman alone in a time that treated women as second class citizens), and one of her teachers, Mr. Dunworthy, is particularly against her being sent back.
Kivrin is sent back and, naturally, something goes wrong. Unfortunately, something goes wrong in both timelines, and both Kivrin and Dunworthy find themselves battling a strange new virus.
I love the way Willis writes people. I was so frustrated while reading this novel, and a lot of that was because she’d so brilliantly written those kinds of people who are incredibly frustrating; people who won’t listen to sound advice or won’t admit to being at fault when something goes wrong.
She also has a real talent for writing children, and children aren’t easy to write at all. In the Middle Ages, Kivrin befriends sisters Rosemund and Agnes and develops a particularly close bond with the younger sister, Agnes, who’s written so well. She can be rather annoying at times, as all young children can be, but before you know it you’ve fallen in love with her and the rest of her complicated, very human family.
What I loved most about this novel was the way Willis brought the Middle Ages to life, but particularly how Kivrin sets her scholarly interest aside to instead record the people she meets. She goes to the 14th century with the intention of observing medieval feasts and recording how they celebrate Christmas, and instead records the lives of the people she meets and all their strengths and foibles.
I was probably most surprised by how much I enjoyed the sections which took place in the 2050s, too. I mainly read this because I wanted to read about Kivrin in the Middle Ages, but I ended up enjoying a lot of the characters in the other section of the book as well. Reading those sections could be a little annoying – again, thanks to the blurb, I already knew what they spent the majority of the book trying to work out – but they were easy to read, and I loved Colin.
Any time travel novel, especially one published over 20 years ago, is going to have its flaws. For example, the people in the 2050s don’t have any mobile form of communication which would have made their lives so much easier and, for the most part, I thought these characters often read like they were from the 1950s rather than the 2050s. Willis isn’t psychic, though, so I don’t expect her to have known, in 1992, that everyone was one day going to essentially have a tiny computer in their pocket.
This is a book about time travel, after all. I can’t pull Willis up for ‘not being realistic’ when time travel is a thing that exists in this world.
Ultimately I really enjoyed Doomsday Book. It’s a chunkier read and none of it’s perfect, but I found it incredibly easy to fly through and I’m so glad I finally crossed it off my TBR.