Reviewed by Jeanne
In the near future, student historians will have an opportunity to do more than just research a topic from records, videos, or interviews. They can actually go back in time and experience an event or time period first hand. Of course, going back in time can be a risky business. Some time periods are inherently more dangerous than others, so certain eras have been off limits. Now Kivrin Engle is preparing to be the first person to venture back into one of those time periods: the Middle Ages, much to Mr. Dunworthy’s disapproval. He’s deeply concerned for her safety, but his objections are overridden by an ambitious colleague and Kivrin is transported. Some hours later, the tech who handled the transport rushes to find Mr. Dunworthy but collapses before he can explain what the problem is. It turns out that he’s very ill and the area is quarantined. As Dunworthy desperately tries to find someone to check Kivrin’s location, the young student finds herself in a past she’s not as well prepared to face as she had thought.
The fourteenth century to which Kivrin travels is no land of knights and ladies and courtly love, but a primitive land where the stench of unwashed bodies and a lack of plumbing is enough to make one gag. It’s winter, bitter cold, and despite her hours of study in Middle English, she can’t understand what people are saying—nor they her. Fortunately, she has a translator implant that kicks in at last, but she’s ill and disoriented, and not sure where she’s supposed to go to be picked up to return to her own time.
She doesn’t know that returning may not be an option.
Most know that I’m a person who likes to read series in order, but I have to confess I failed miserably in this instance. Like Willis’ scholars, I’ve time hopped all over, and am only now reading the first novel in the Oxford Time Travel series. Doomsday Book was first published in 1992, and so some of the future appears a bit dated already: no cell phones, for example. This is a minor quibble, however, because where Willis truly excels is in her portrayal of the past. She also is a pro at poking holes in our own expectations of past and future, and does so with touches of both humor and humanity. The characters are ones we care about and can relate to.
It’s Willis’ ability to make us feel as if we are actually glimpsing another time and her observations about the human spirit that make her writing so compelling. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say that at first I was disappointed that so many chapters were devoted to what was going on with the future team instead of letting the reader in on what was happening with Kivrin in the past, but the two story lines form an interesting commentary on stress and human behavior.
I wasn’t surprised to find that this book had won the Nebula Award and was co-winner of a Hugo. In the UK, it’s been reprinted as part of a Science Fiction Masterworks series, but as others have pointed out it works as well as an historical novel. No matter the category, this is a superior novel that I highly recommend. As it is, I am still shivering from the descriptions of a fourteenth century winter.
But the real appeal for me is the way Willis upends our expectations. Like the students, most readers go into an historical book with certain beliefs and preconceived notions. We think we know about life in specific time periods, but much of the fiction and film feature, to paraphrase my college anthropology professor, twenty first century people in historical garb. In Willis’ story, only Kivrin is aghast that a girl of about twelve is to be married off to a man of 50; only Kivrin is aware of the lack of hygiene, the amount of dirt on people’s hands as they touch food or wounds; only Kivrin questions the status of servants. Her job is simply to observe, not comment or change. Time and again, she’s tripped up by small things, such as wanting to question her rescuer before realizing that it’s considered almost wanton behavior for an unmarried woman of her station to seek to speak to man privately. Yet with all that is strange, basic human nature is shown to be largely unchanged. Another hallmark of a Willis tale is the way that the students’ views evolve: they go to study the “contemps” of an era, abstract ideas of behavior and thought, and they gradually discover they are, after all, individual human beings. They also come to the realization that some of their judgments are based on very different circumstances. It can be very humbling.
Willis entertains me, educates me, and makes me think. That’s the mark of a good writer and a good book.