Kivrin, a historian and student at Oxford in 2054, plans a trip to the Middle Ages using the well-established technology of “the net.” She must do extensive research in order to blend in with the locals. The history department’s technicians must perform complex calculations to get her to the right location. Her instructors carefully set up a rendezvous to bring her back. No one has ever traveled to the fourteenth century before. Kivrin’s favorite professor, Mr. Dunworthy, is deeply worried for her. However, Kivrin has wanted to do this for as long as she can remember. No one knows more than she does about her target time and place. She knows she’s prepared.
Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, but after that nothing goes according to plan. Separated from each other by seven centuries, Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin find themselves at the centers of connected disasters. Kivrin struggles to find her way home while a frantic Mr. Dunworthy tries to rescue her.
This is the best book I’ve read in years. I loved it. It grabbed me immediately with a fun plot, and kept me engaged with magnetic characters and profound explorations of universal truths.
Many time travel stories I’ve read were weighed down by the author’s historical research. Connie Willis avoided this, and plunged the reader into the past along with Kivrin. Necessary details were provided in cleverly integrated ways. I knew nothing about the fourteenth century when I picked up this book, but I never felt lost or lectured. I was simply riveted by what was happening.
The book also had a delightful, recognizable future universe. The time travel equipment was operated by the history department at Oxford in much the same way that lab equipment is currently used by university science departments. Ms. Willis handled the quirks of academia with shrewd wit, and she deftly communicated the rules of the net without bogging down her story. Also, I enjoyed reading about a futuristic London where people still had to navigate the subway and dodge umbrellas in the rain.
The book’s world in the past was great as well. In other time travel tales, I have felt that the people being visited were either held up for ridicule (look at how smart we are in the future and how dumb people used to be!) or they were caricatures. Often there were few women, or the women were flimsy props. In this book, the main characters in the Middle Ages were a priest and family full of women, and they were all fully realized. They held some beliefs specific to their time, but they were real people. When tested, they had relatable and complex reactions of bravery, fear, prejudice, love, and grace.
The Doomsday Book was funny, interesting, and genuinely moving. I actually laughed and cried at different points in the story. I also thought about it for days after I finished it. Using a fun sci-fi gimmick, Connie Willis crafted a story about faith, families, and courage in any age. I highly recommend it.