Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Doomsday Book

Doomsday BookConnie Willis
Awards: Nebula & Hugo
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


There are many books I have enjoyed a lot. There are a few books that rise into a special category where I am completely sucked into the world of the book; where while I’m taking a break from reading it, at work or whatever, I’m still thinking about the characters and what just happened and what will happen next; and where I read more and more slowly because I don’t want it to end. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was like that for me, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Doomsday Book was one of these too. I just loved this book.

This book has some of the same characters as Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is also a time-travel story set in England and involves some of the same Oxford historians, but takes place several years later.

Kivrin, a graduate student of medieval history at Oxford, goes back in time to the 14th century to do research. Unfortunately, as part of her preparation for the trip, Kivrin helped out an archaeologist digging up one of the medieval tombs near Oxford and caught a 14th-century flu from the buried remains. By the time she arrives in the 14th century, she is delirious with fever. She is taken in by the family of the local lord and they nurse her back to health; she grows attached to them and becomes a governess to their two children.

Kivrin was supposed to be sent back to the 1320s, before the bubonic plague got to England. But there was an unusually large amount of time slippage on the drop and she ended up arriving the year the plague arrived. At first everything goes okay but then, after the appearance of some out-of-town visitors, everyone around her starts dying of the plague.

Meanwhile, before Kivrin had gone back in time, she had already given the flu to several people in current-day Oxford. There is no cure for the flu in the present so the government shuts down all university operations and quarantines the town and Kivrin’s advisor is unable to get to the time lab and rescue Kivrin from the past.

Kivrin’s advisor’s struggles to get to the lab to find her and the small-time bureaucracies he has to deal with are funny in the same way the situations in To Say Nothing of the Dog were. And, at the same time, the plague striking Kivrin’s 14th-century family is horrific. The book was an expert combination of frustratingly funny situations and genuinely moving loss and sadness.

It was the small things about Kivrin’s experiences in the past that made them believable (and made the book particularly great). Her clothing is too bright and too finely woven and her fingernails and teeth are in far too good shape for the Middle Ages. The Old English dialect she had studied turned out to be wrong for the town she ended up in so the first person she is able to communicate with is the town priest, who understands her spoken Latin. The ringing of local church bells is, at first, a way of marking time during the day but gradually becomes a way to communicate how the plague is decimating the surrounding towns.


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C - Log said...

Ah, Commerce!

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