Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Spectra; First Thus edition (August 1, 1993)
ISBN-13: 978-0553562736
Mass Market Paperback: 592 pages
Originally published in hardcover, 1992
Date read: January 18, 2010

This book came to me by way of a friend at work.  We were in the back office having one of those quick exchanges about books and subject matter preference that book lovers engage in regularly.  I don't recall how the conversation started, but somehow it came up that I liked the Middle Ages and she mentioned just having finished Doomsday Book.  It sounded like a cool story, but we were out of it at the store.  (Have I mentioned that  I work at a bookstore?)   I think my co-worker's sister recommended it to her, she recommended it to me and, after talking about it one day in the break room after I finished it, another colleague decided to read it.  I love how books get passed around like that.  It builds a wonderful sense of camaraderie as well as a shared history.  It's little wonder that the One Book, One _______ (insert your town or school name here) program has swept the country.

This isn't a book I would normally pick up on my own mainly because I don't browse the sci-fi/fantasy section.  But when I arrived at work for my next shift after our initial conversation, the book was waiting for me in my locker.  I decided it was meant to be.  Doomsday Book is a thick novel, but don't let that put you off.  The delightful characters and suspenseful plot make it a pretty quick read.

A major theme in the book is that although technology & health science have grown tremendously from the 14th to the 21st century, human nature apparently has not.  There are wonderfully kind and noble people in both time periods, people who enjoy life and who want to do the right thing.  There are no classic evil villains in this book, none of the sort who set out to intentionally harm others.  The "bad guy" in this novel is incompetence, delusions of self-importance, selfishness, religious obsessives who lack love, and fear.  Make that Fear, with a capitol "F."  Examples of these types of people and/or character traits abound in both the 14th and the 21st centuries, and if these folks don't muck things up for others, they at least make people want to run and hide until the coast is clear.  Of course at least one of these incompetent, impatient, glory-seeking nincompoops is in a position of authority . . . and so the story begins.

The gist of the story is this:  it's the year 2045 and historians time travel to get first hand experience of the period they're studying.  Its Christmas time and the Medieval department of Oxford is preparing to send a young historian, Kivrin Engle, to the Middle Ages, specifically to the year 1320.  No one has traveled that far back into time yet.  The technology is fairly accurate in terms of "dropping" historians into a location, but no one knows how much time "slippage" there will be in sending someone that far back in time.  Will it be five minutes?  Five years?  Fifty years?  The Black Death hit Oxford in 1348, so the question of time is more important than simply wearing clothes that may be out-dated.  Kivrin's mentor, the cautious Professor Dunworthy, does not think it wise to send a young, unaccompanied woman into the Middle Ages where cut-throats, rapists, and disease thrive.  He's a professor of 20th Century History, but does all he can to help insure Kivrin will be as prepared as possible to meet the challenges of the Middle Ages.  Kivrin has studied history, culture, and languages in preparation for this adventure, and has had a full round of immune system enhancers.

But forces beyond anyone's control arise to cause havoc during both Kivrin's drop and her mission as well as in the "safe" environment of Oxford in 2054.  Will Kivrin be able to return or will she be stuck in the Middle Ages for ever?  Will she even survive the Middle Ages?  Will Professor Dunworthy be able to get Kivrin back?  Can he fight his way through the roadblocks his incompetent colleague has thrown up?  Will anyone in Oxford be left to help her return?

As it so often happens, a book that was never even on my radar ends up being one of the most enjoyable books that I've read in a long time.  I highly recommend Doomsday Book to history buffs, sci-fi/fantasy fans, and those who like to sink into a good story.  I don't put a whole lot of stock in book awards (unless, of course, one of my favorite authors wins one), but Doomsday won the Hugo award and the Nebula award.

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