I don’t understand how it is possible for a novel about time travel back to the Middle Ages can be so boring. And not just dull, but hard to read. Doomsday Book is supposed to be a classic work of fantasy that gets realistic with its presentation of the Middle Ages. An Oxford student (Kivrin) wants to visit the Middle Ages for study which have finally been made available for study, having been previously been deemed to dangerous (plague, wars, bandits, etc.) Her mentor Dunworthy is firmly opposed to the idea but her official tutor Latimer is all for it. Kivrin goes back in time, but in the present the technician Banri in charge of the technology (which is never even slightly explained) suddenly gets deliriously sick but seems to think something went wrong with the transfer. None of the experts can figure out what’s wrong with him, but it’s contagious and eventually a lot of people are sick and quite a few die. For some reason there’s also a group of American tourists/ musicians around who get stuck on campus during the quarantine. While this is all going on, everyone who can is trying to locate the guy in charge, Basingame, who is apparently on vacation in some remote part of Scotland. The lack of information and sympathy concerning characters and events renders much of this part of the novel meaningless.
Meanwhile, Kivrin makes it to the Middle Ages but her translation technology is malfunctioning so communication proves difficult. As someone who has studied and can read Middle English and Latin fairly well, I have to say that her Middle English is not very believable. It’s neither literary nor reminiscent of common speech recorded in letters or other documents that are still around. The Latin is totally generic and adds nothing. Thankfully, dialogue reverts to modern English quickly. Technical complaint aside, Kivrin gets taken in by a country noble family. Pretty soon Kivrin discovers that she’s going to have a hard time finding the return point and that their is a sickness in the area that should not be there according to what she has learned. She might be stuck in the Middle Ages with plague present decades before it’s supposed to be.
You would think that this would make for a riveting plot, but there is no characterization at all. In present day Oxford, everyone spends all their time arguing and trying to figure out whose fault the time travel problem is and what-where the illness is from (and where the heck is Basingame- I still don’t see why anyone cares about that because there’s no information about what this guy might be able to do to alleviate any of the situations). Kivrin has no personality at all either. The medieval family that she meets are the only ones who have any character to them. I think this is because of the narrative style, and how each part is told almost exclusively through dialogue, internal and external. Because none of the characters know what’s going on, except for Kivrin’s knowledge of the past, there is no development because nothing progresses. The medieval family has personality and character because Kivrin knows (or thinks she does) what’s going on, and can therefore spend some time telling her audience (Dunworthy through her diary/record of her trip) about the people she meets.
It turns out that Kivrin was actually sent about 20 years later than she should have been, placing her in the middle of a plague epidemic. This part of the story is good because it does get pretty realistic about the plague and the impact it had on people and society. The problem is that this is only a small portion of the story. How the time mistake happens is not satisfactorily explained because there is absolutely no information about how time travel technology works. Past and present realize what happened at about the same time, so the rescue mission succeeds and with this the story ends. Even this conclusion is not redemptive because none of the characters who survive the illness past or present (the present one is never clearly explained) are sympathetic or even interesting.
And on a final note of annoyance, no one ever points out the complexity contained in the title. The Doomsday in the title of the book would have meant something different in the Middle Ages than what we think of now. Kivrin’s title of her journal Domesday is accurate in spelling, but even her explanation of that title does not reflect how people now would understand. The word “doom” (or ‘dom/dome’ in the medieval spelling) means something more like “Fate”, not exactly “catastrophe”. ‘Domesday Boke’ was a real title in the Middle Ages and Kivrin’s explanation mentions the manuscript and its purpose correctly, but provides too little detail. I doubt many people would realize that the title suggests that the book is supposed to be an ethnography, and not just an apocalyptic end of the world in plague story, both past and present. There is also no real mention of the Biblical associations of the label which refers to Judgement Day. All we get is the expected apocalyptic part of doomsday, which is disappointing.