To Say Nothing of the Dog is perhaps Connie Willis’s most humorous Oxford Time Travel book, set mainly on the outskirts of Victorian Oxford. The novel features two main characters: Verity/Kindle, who is sent back in time by the frustratingly persistent Lady Schrapnell to help figure out the location of the Bishop’s Bird Stump, and Ned Henry, who is sent back to help right a supposed discrepancy caused by Verity. Willis often pokes fun at aspects of Victorian life through Ned’s nonchalant humor (he is the narrator). The story reads much like a mystery novel as Ned and Verity attempt to understand the nature of their first time discrepancy while simultaneously trying to prevent more time-travel disasters. The final solution is amusingly explained but leaves some unanswered questions. To Say Nothing of the Dog is certainly worth reading for its humorous, science fiction, and historical fiction aspects, but those who are not interested in the Victorian era will be disappointed.
Doomsday Book, Connie Willis’s first Oxford Time Travel novel, is one of her most famous, featuring young time traveler-historian Kivrin on an expedition to medieval England. Shifting between modern and medieval times, the novel combines first person “journal” accounts and traditional narration. Like many of Willis’s novels, Doomsday Book is (in comparison) relatively slow moving for a good half of the book (though certainly not uninteresting) and speeds up to an incredibly moving ending. The book makes the horrors of the Black Death devastatingly real, and continuously questions the role of religion in our lives. While perhaps more interesting to those who have some background on the middle ages, I had little interest in medieval times but still found the book hauntingly captivating. I found myself pondering Doomsday Book for days after I had finished reading it.
All Clear is the second half of the time travel Blackout/All Clear duo by Connie Willis, set in World War II. While I found Blackout a bit frustratingly repetitive in places, All Clear was a whirlwind of plot twist after plot twist, with an emotional range of unfathomable despair to shock to tentative joy. Willis will leave you gasping aloud in both excitement and frustration as the three main characters attempt to return to 2060 from WWII. Willis leaps back and forth between different times, places and characters, thus weaving in an element of mystery (pay attention to the date printed at the beginning of each chapter). Blackout and All Clear are must-reads for any time travel or historical fiction fan, but as a message about the strength of the common person undergoing unimaginable hardship and sacrifice, these two novels would be enjoyed by anyone.
This was the first time I read a work by Connie Willis. Blackout is, at its core, historical fiction, though laced with elements of sci-fi in the form of time travel. The premise of all of Willis’s time travel novels is that in the near future (2060) Oxford University historians will conduct their research by traveling back in time to their periods of study. In Blackout, several historians travel to England during World War II, disguising themselves in various locations including London during the Blitz, Dunkirk during the evacuation, and a countryside manor house. However, something has gone wrong with the historians’ return mechanism (called the drop), and our heroes are trapped. At first, I found Blackout to be immensely interesting, as the story exuded all the emotions and attitudes of WWII life and at times even made me feel slightly panicked. However, 500 pages of nearly the same phrase (“Where is the retrieval team? Why is my drop not working?”) began to get frustrating. I will be reading the sequel, which essentially is a direct continuation from the 1st book with hardly a transition at all, but only because I’m curious to find out how/if the characters return to 2060. In the end, I would recommend this book, as the story is extremely immersive, but don’t attempt it unless you’re ready to read 1000 pages of WWII historical fiction.