I have so many things to say about this book. I’ve never really read anything like it. I do love time-travel tales. It follows that I love anachronistic situations, people getting stuck in a different time, and – well, just a bunch of bad schlit happening. This book has all that. I also rather enjoy tales set in medieval times, or the Middle Ages, as it were. I’m not, however, big on fantasy. You show me a dragon or a wizard, and I’ll show you how to set down a book so fast you risk injury to the wrist. Alas, this novel had nothing of the sort. This book was more like a National Geographic presentation about the Middle Ages.
I hesitate to say anything about what happens in the book for fear of the spoiler. It seems to be that every other review on the book sort of just expects you to know it though. The thing that perplexes me is that if Connie Willis had expected you to know the preliminary twist, why did she write so deeply into the book trying to add suspense and mystery over it? Why did she not just advertise it on the dust jacket? Well, I don’t know. But assuming you aren’t only going to read one review – my review – of the book, I’m going to have to go with the notion that you probably already know what the book was about, and that huge plot device that seems so carefully hidden by Connie yet so destructively advertised by every other reviewer I’ve seen. Further, if I don’t talk about it, then I really can’t tell you why I thought so highly of this story.
I won’t use the spoiler tag here because the rest of what I write will be based on the content of my next sentence; if you don’t want to know, just stop reading my review now. The engineers who facilitate time travel in this book send the main character to the wrong year. Maybe you already knew that, but I feel like I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t known that going in. And the reason I knew it going in was because I read reviews of the book. Like I said, Connie tries to keep that bit a mystery and let the characters tell you at the right time. And does a pretty good job. Either way, it was still a very intense and enjoyable read. Let me tell you why.
The method by which they time-travel is called a net. She does very little to explain it, but what I gleaned through the entirety of the book is that it’s pretty solid. She covers all her bases pretty well. Kivrin, the protagonist, wants to go back to the fourteenth century. To 1320, specifically. Well going back that far, there was some ‘slippage’ and, due to some extenuating circumstances, some data got entered wrong, and – there you have it – she’s getting dropped right into the middle of the black plague.
Kivrin wanted to come up with sort of a Domesday Book, setting the record straight about who was where and who had what. Whatever. It didn’t seem real clear to me why she wanted to go to that year in particular, but that’s okay. I feel you, dog. Hell, I wrote a column about wanting to check out the 14th on my website. But here’s the thing. It was written in jest because I had no clue what the 1300s were like until I read Connie Willis’s Dooms Day Book. No clue. Good God, was I off.
I actually feel terrible about what I wrote in that column now – not that I said anything overtly bad, but just the fact that I blew right over it not really taking time to consider the fact that those things really happened. This is really and truly a part of our human history. We lost some hundred and fifty million people to this terrible plague, and it wasn’t just some quick, painless stop-breathing-and-you-die death. It was a horrific, violent and gory death. Connie does a masterful job of making you realize how it affected these villagers, who had no understanding of germs and the way diseases were spread. She tells this story like she’s recounting a period out of history, just using fictional characters. She talks about how entire villages were wiped out, not leaving anyone alive to even dig the graves. Families were terrified of this plague, thinking it was punishment from God, and would leave the village, heading somewhere – anywhere – else just to get away, leaving their children and babies behind if they were infected. She also goes into pretty great detail about how it wracked their bodies with fever, convulsions and severe horror when they would vomit blood all over themselves. This really happened.
All of these things she writes, like I said, feel like a dramatization – some characters playing the part of a true story. I’m not saying that in a negative way at all. It was remarkably well done. And I have a newfound respect and sympathy in my heart and soul for these people who lived and died seven hundred years ago. On the side while reading this book, I went and researched the Black Death and read all about the three different versions of the plague and how it spread across the continent, carried by fleas on the backs of black rats. I took a great interest in understanding exactly what it was and why it happened. And I feel great sorrow for those who had to go through it.
So now that I’ve kicked the dead horse for a thousand words, let me tell you what I didn’t like about the book. Connie seems to me to be a very inexperienced writer. Her grammar – or at least that of the copy editor – left some fair amount to be desired. There were more typos and mistakes in this book than I’ve ever seen anywhere. And that, once again, could be the copy editor, but likely she had some part in it. And much like when I’m reviewing a book, Connie has a tendency to not so much kick the dead horse, but more like flog it repeatedly for hours at a time, involving seven or eight large, hairy men. When she’s done with that horse, there’s scarcely anything left to kick.
She goes on long-winded, hundred-page diatribes about how Dr. Ahrens is worried about her nephew making it into London. How Mr. Dunworthy can’t get ahold of someone on the phone. He tries a rotation of several people over. And over. And over. Do they not have cell phones in the near future. It got pretty tiring. She was trying to build suspense and fill space with these ridiculous unnecessary endeavors and it went on for so long that I almost started skimming. Something made me hold on though, and once I hit about the 35% mark or so, it paid off. She got done trying to fill space and started just kicking ass with the topic.
You know those books where there are two stories going at once, and they go back and forth every chapter? You know how you get attached to one vein and kind of don’t want to go back to the other yet? You want to stay in one for a while longer because it’s getting so good? Well that’s the case here. But after a page or two you’re back involved in the current thread and you don’t want to leave it. Really good work. Connie Willis definitely has a story to tell here.
Tips for reading this book: don’t give up. Fight through the laborious monotony of the space-filler. You’ll be happy you did. Understand that certain words capitalized mean departments at the college. At least this is what I was able to divine, having not had it sufficiently explained in the book. Medieval. Fourteenth Century. Things like that. She will say something like, “Medieval had said this was going to happen.” I think there are different departments for the study of those time periods in the college, and these are eponymous. It might make a little more sense if you know that going in.
Okay, I’ve gone on long enough. I can’t tell you what happens because I don’t want to ruin it. But yeah, everything that can go wrong does, and you end up with a hell of a suspensful story. I will definitely be reading this one again. And thank you, Ms. Willis, for opening my eyes to the truths behind what happened seven hundred years ago on our little planet.
Writing: 3.0 stars. She could use some work here.
Storytelling: 4.0. High rating. I think maybe I’d have given her five if she would have obeyed Strunk & White’s “Omit Needless Words” rule.
Storyline: 4.0. Original story, hadn’t read anything like it before. However, it’s so deeply built on historical fact that I have to come off a little because Black Death wasn’t her idea.