Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
This genre-bending story is a medical thriller, near-future time travel, and historical fiction novel all in one. Despite the subject matter, it’s a rather cozy novel; the kind you read while sipping tea on a rainy afternoon. While reading, I kept thinking that it had no right to be as good as it was because the overall story is rather thin: girl travels in time, professor tries to get her home.
Well, maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that. In near future Oxford, historians study the past by actually visiting it. A young historian, Kivrin, is determined to go to the Middle Ages despite her mentor, professor Dunworth’s, protests. She succeeds, but something goes wrong during transfer and the tech who can tell Mr. Dunworthy what happened gets a particularly virulent strain of the flu. To make matters worse, Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages infected by the same flu, disoriented, and can’t find the meeting spot to return to the future. What follows is split between Kivrin’s adventures in the Middle Ages and Mr. Dunworthy’s quest to discover what happened to her during a flu epidemic in present time.
After much suspense, we finally discover that Kivrin was sent not to 1320, but Christmas 1348 — the exact start of the Black Plague in Oxfordshire. The two epidemics occur counter-cyclically: as we come closer to finding the source of the flu in the present, the Black Plague gets progressively worse in the past. We finally get our answers and Mr. Dunworthy sets off to rescue Kivrin accompanied by the plucky 12-year-old nephew of his colleague Dr. Ahrens.
*End spoilers….for now*
I would give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, I really loved it and found it very compelling. I spent some time in Oxford and south west England in the summer of 2015 which made the story extra special for me. That said, I deduct a half star because I kept getting pulled out of the story for one annoying detail. This novel was written in 1992, and while cellphones weren’t as common then as they are now but they still existed! One would assume that by the 2050s we would all have individual communicators, Connie Willis. But no, every time Mr. Dunworthy had to contact someone, he had to find a phone! Somehow they had FaceTime in the 2050s but no cellphones. Ugh!
Beyond that glaring omission, the rest of the world building was deftly handled. The technology that allowed the historians to time travel wasn’t fully explained, but it didn’t have to be, in fact it would’ve taken away from the story to get too much technobabble. The detail of the Middle Ages was also fantastic and not overwhelming. You could tell that the author did a lot of research on the time period without feeling bogged down by details. I could almost smell the decay during the descriptions of illnesses, for example, but I wasn’t bombarded with the minutia of flora, fauna, and herbs like some other time travel books *cough*Outlander*cough*
The characters were all very well rounded and I kept getting my heart broken when they all start dying. Agnes’ death was especially sad, I had to go hug my baby daughter afterwards. Kivrin was strong and resourceful and realistically affected by her experiences. Mr. Dunworthy obviously loved her dearly in a paternal manner that never veered into the creepy — a fine line to walk! Mr. Dunworthy could’ve forgiven Badri though, that was a dick move to just let him take all the blame like that… the guy was sick and he did make a backup after all! William’s dalliances and Gawyn’s unrequited love for Elwys non-withstanding, I was actually surprised there was no romance at all. I was almost expecting something to happen between Agnes and Father Roche by the end, but even that was nicely tempered by respect and admiration on both sides.
I highly recommend this book! I can’t wait to read more novels by this author.