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Review: Blackout, Connie Willis

blackout connie willisIn 2060, humans have discovered time travel, and it’s now a fantastic method for historians to get a real view of what happened in the past. For three young historians, England during World War II is the destination of choice. Eileen, or Merope in 2060, is assigned to be a maid in a country house, looking after evacuees. Mike Davis finds himself posted to just before Dunkirk to watch the boats depart. Polly Sebastian, meanwhile, heads straight into the heart of the London Blitz. Each goes armed with knowledge to survive his or her particular assignment and full knowledge of where their “drop” points are and when they’re meant to check in. But, around the same time for each of them, things start to go wrong, and these historians find that rather than simply observing history, they have to live it.

I put Blackout on my pile for Long-Awaited Reads Month and am I glad – this is a book I shouldn’t have put off for a year. There were many aspects about it that I really, really liked, and by the time I reached the end, I was thrilled that I had All Clear on the shelf waiting for me to pick this story back up again. The book doesn’t really end, it just cuts off, and there are many loose plotlines left dangling for the second book to pick up again. I’ve since had a poke around the internet and I’m fortunate to have picked it up after All Clear was published; one big complaint for early readers is that they were left hanging for an entire year. I’m happy that won’t happen to me.

While my edition of this book is over 600 pages long, I found that it fled by as I got wrapped up in the individual problems of Eileen, Mike, and Polly. My previous experience with Willis’s time travel books is Doomsday Book which I also loved, so I was prepared to get deep inside each character’s mind as everything starts to go wrong. I actually found the whole process that each of them went through really fascinating – they’re all so confident in their ability to escape at will that they don’t really think much about where they’re going. Polly, for instance, gets an implant with each and every bombing incident during the part of the Blitz that she is meant to experience, so she’s not meant to be in any real danger. Instead, she’s assigned to just watch how those who are actually in danger experience it, and that’s all she expects. Of course, when the drop doesn’t open and she realizes that she’s actually stuck in the middle of the London Blitz, and sometimes has no real way of actually knowing where and when is safe, her perspective completely changes.

At that point, when the three of them start to wonder about what’s happened to their retrieval teams and their drop points, they each start to actually live in the midst of World War II. There is some element of repetitiveness, as a lot of what they experience is quite similar; there are meant to be retrieval teams that investigate if they haven’t returned at a certain point, and they each spend a lot of time pondering their arrival. In addition, they start to worry that they’ve affected history, despite the apparent truth that historians can’t alter history, particularly Mike, who finds himself seemingly changes events at a critical period in World War II. Not only do they panic about what happens next to themselves, they start to feel as though they genuinely *don’t* know what’s going on in the war.

I particularly loved how Willis depicted ordinary heroism in the face of extraordinary danger. At times, particularly during the bombing raids, her descriptions reminded me how devastating a war this was for London and that it didn’t happen all that long ago. Even for people who weren’t that close to the bombs, living with the reality and unpredictability that each night might be their last took an incredible amount of courage. The atmosphere that she evokes is incredibly well done. One of my very favorite parts of the book had a Shakespearean actor getting up in the middle of an air raid shelter and going through monologues to distract the others in the shelter. That scene is going to stay with me for some time.

Blackout is a book that I had an amazing time with, but don’t read it unless you have All Clear ready to go immediately after – otherwise, you’ll be frustrated that it ends in the middle with no resolution whatsoever. So far it looks like I’ll be recommending these!

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book and its sequel.

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