I’ve read this book before (maybe twice before) but it had been so long that I felt it was due for a re-read and review. Obviously, I’m a fan. Connie Willis can be a bit verbose and repetitive here and there, but I eat it all up anyway. (I also love J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, T.H. White, and George R.R. Martin, so I can deal with a bit of verbosity and lengthy description).
The story starts at Oxford University in the year 2054 in a history department that not only studies history in dusty old tomes, but also uses time travel to go back to visit the past and document it firsthand. I LOVE this idea as both a history buff and a time travel fan. A young student, Kivrin, is preparing to travel to 1320. One professor is pushing her to go a little too quickly and is perhaps not doing as much carefully planning as is usually required for such a large jump in time to such a dangerous century. Another professor is more of a fussy father figure, freaked out that she’ll come to harm. And off she goes in her carefully planned historically accurate (maybe) clothes, with a translator as well as plenty of language training, but all hell breaks loose on both sides of history in a very short time.
The story bobs between Oxford in 2054 and the village where Kivrin has landed in the Middle Ages. I think one of the things I love the most is how the characters are fleshed out in both parts of the story. If anything, the people in the Middle Ages come to life even more than the ones closer to our own time. They are gloriously complex in their personalities, relationships, and foibles, and your heart breaks when terrible things happen for them–I won’t throw many spoilers out except to say, it’s the Middle Ages, you can’t expect it to be just hunky dory back then. The family Kivrin stays with, the local earnest priest, and the villagers around them; they all feel like three-dimensional in a way you don’t always see in characters of the past in time travel novels. Back in the future, they’re going through their own troubles, (and as an unimportant aside, I find it kind of delightful that they don’t have mobile phones in that future–the book was first published in 1992 so she foresaw video phones but not cellular phones).
I know this book is not for everyone; I have seen some reviewers who just hate it, but it is just the thing to fill me with warm fuzzies (as well as some tears) and make me come back again and again.