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Review: Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

As an aspiring medieval historian, Kivrin has always wanted to visit the Middle Ages for herself.  Since this book is set a great deal in the future, she actually can, although that doesn’t mean all of her advisors at Oxford think it is a great idea.  In fact, one of them, Dunworthy, is frantic with worry about her; he is even more worried when after the drop, the tech who sent her falls very ill and can’t tell him her coordinates.  Soon, all of Oxford is under quarantine as doctors desperately try to figure out where the mystery illness came from.  In 14th century England, Kivrin’s quest doesn’t go well either, as she both falls ill and realizes that something has indeed gone wrong with the drop and she is about to be tested far more than she’d ever expected.

Since this one appears to be science fiction, Keith had a go at it before I had a chance and really didn’t like it, so I was reluctant to pick it myself.  Shame on me because I absolutely loved it.  Obviously, as a medievalist myself, I am right there with Kivrin, I’d love to go for two weeks and experience it all for myself.  Of course, I don’t think I’d much like her experience there, but I thought one of the coolest parts about the beginning of the book was when she realizes that medieval life wasn’t exactly like a textbook; not every highborn family is going to live in the exact same manor house with the same number of servants.  I’m sure this was the case, although some of it is caused by events that later become prevalent (and which I won’t reveal because I don’t want to spoil the book!)

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book for me was how exciting it was.  With everyone in Oxford falling ill, and Kivrin doing so herself, and all the craziness occurring in the first third of the book, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  Events roll on and eventually all becomes clear, but the book definitely had me guessing for a while.  It’s easy to figure out what happened once details emerge, but even then the level of suspense and ensuing tragedy just builds up.  This is a science fiction novel, ostensibly, but that didn’t bother me one bit.  The technology has some fancy words attached, but since there isn’t much explanation and all the fancy words meant things I could translate into layman’s terms on my own, I didn’t experience any trouble with it.

I was so pleased with this book that despite its chunkster status, the pages flew by and I read it in two days.  I would definitely recommend it to fans of both speculative fiction and historical fiction, although given Keith’s experience, if history bores you this one probably will not be for you.  I, however, loved it, and know I’ll be on the lookout for other books by Connie Willis.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon

9 comments to Review: Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

  • I am sure I am not the only reader who has a list of authors that I am going to get to one day. Connie Willis is one of those authors for me!

  • You are starting to sound like a Brit – have you developed an accent yet? The book sounds like a perfect fit for you!

  • I definitely want to read it! I love both speculative fiction and historical fiction, so there’s no way it won’t be a winner for me.

  • I’ve had this book, unread, for ages. Somehow I keep forgetting about it. I think I need to make it a priority sometime soon.

  • I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog and have been wanting to read this one for ages! Your positive review has just increased my own desire to read Doomsday.

  • I loved, loved, loved this book! It is one of my favorites, so I’m glad you liked it too! If you liked this book, I can also say that Passage, and To Say Nothing About the Dog are also really great reads by Connie Willis. To Say Nothing also has time travel elements in it, and is very funny as well. I find her books addicting, and I think she is a great writer. I am so glad you’ve discovered her!

  • I’m a big fan of both sci-fi and historicals, and the combination of these two genres in one well-written book was a big draw for me.

    I loved the book, but found it very distracting that in the future – a future so advanced that time travel is possible – there are no cell phones, effectively no internet, and not even voice mail. A significant part of the plot line from the future involves having someone sit by the phone for hours just to answer it and write down messages, and having the phone system so overloaded that calls cannot be completed.

    Overall, a great book who’s view of the future is not aging well at all.
    Brian Casey´s last post …Readers Against DRM

  • henryporter

    I read this book shortly after it came out in paperback. Loved it. Even for the early 90’s the science fiction aspect of it seemed dated – a nice effect in my opinion, it made it believable. While missing the cell technology of today it does allude to GPS technology which was largely unheard of in the early 1990’s. The time travel aspect (scifi part) is so crude one can believe that time travel might be only 30 years away from becoming reality, I really like that. You’re immersed in two periods, today and the 14th century and in both era’s disease is beyond the control of men, wreaking havoc on a population. Connie Willis does a wonderful job of creating the relationships between Prof. Dunworthy, Kivrin and Father Roche, you like these people and many others. The writer of the review above, an historian, commented that she would not like to have visited during the black death. As a health care professional with an interest in history, I can’t help but think I would like to try, of course armed with 21st century immunizations. Also, I don’t think anyone from the 21st century could fully prepare themselves for the smells and hygiene of the 14th century, still… The story is superb, the characters touch you, the stresses are real and the time travel is quite incidental. I’ll take a chance here and state I’ve been waiting for someone to make a movie out of this novel for some time.

  • Matthew

    I now have a new favorite Author: Connie Willis! This book was SENSATIONAL! Brava to Ms. Willis!