SFF Plagues: Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Apparently, I’m the kind of person who feels the need to read books about epidemics during an acutal real-world pandemic. I understand that many people are different and want to steer away from post-apocalyptic fiction and zombie novels as long as the world is in lock-down, but I find a strange kind of comfort in reading about situations similar – but thankfully, different enough! – to ours. This book hit me very hard, it put me through all the emotions, and I still have wet eyes as I type this.

by Connie Willis

Published: Bantam, 1992
Ebook: 593 pages
Series: Oxford Time Travel #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

It’s the year 2054 and Oxford historians travel back in time to do their research. Among them is young Kivrin who has been dreaming of going to 1320 since she was little. Until recently, the Middle Ages had been rated a 10 on the danger scale, disallowing historians to travel there, but as developments change, Kivrin does get her chance. Her tutor Mr. Dunworthy tries to keep her from going but she will not be deterred. And of course, things go terribly wrong…

This is a book told in two timelines. In one, we follow Kivrin into the Middle Ages, in the other we worry with Mr. Dunworthy in the present (well, his present). And while the jump into the past seems to have gone well, the technician who is supposed to read the necessary data to bring Kivrin back in two weeks, has fallen suddenly ill. A new kind of ill. A virus that quickly spreads thorughout Oxford and has the city under quarantine in no time. Mr. Dunworthy has to turn the college into wards for sick people, his friend Dr. Ahrens basically lives in the hospital, and something didn’t go right with Kivrin’s time travel… except Badri, the technician, is to ill to tell anyone.

There’s a lot going on here! Dealing with an epidemic is one thing, but mostly what the chapters in the present (I’m just going to call it that, even though it is technically our future) deal with is Dunworthy making lots of calls, waiting for people to call him back, getting other technicians into Oxford, making more calls, and dealing with the people around him, who are in various states of panic.
Kivrin, on the other hand, arrives safely in the Middle Ages, although something also doesn’t seem to be right. Not only does she fall ill immediately (but how? She has been inoculated against all the possible diseases she might catch from that time period), but her translator doesn’t appear to work. So she can’t understand what people are saying and she can’t make herself understoo! Her cover story gets thrown out of the window as she simply tries to stay alive, learn the language, and not get herself burned at the stake as a witch.

What really made this book for me was the characters. The protagonists grew dear to me very quickly, as it’s really hard not to love courageous Kivrin and her father figure Dunworthy. But also the side characters – even the ones I didn’t like – were amazing. Dr. Ahrens’ 12-year-old nephew gets sort of dumped on Dunworthy but he turns out to be way more resourceful than first expected. Dunworthy’s assistant (if that’s what he was, I can’t be quite sure) Mr. Finch also outdoes himself taking on most of the organisational duties that Dunworthy can’t take care of himself. Mary Ahrens, who fights for every patient that comes to her hospital and who still has kind words of reassurance for her friends even though she is overworked. The technicians and historians – some of whom are actually just idiots – all felt like real people.
The same goes for the people Kivrin meets in the past. I was probably fondest of the child Agnes and Father Roche, who made the small village where Kivrin spends her time come alive despite the restricted setting. I saw them all vividly in my mind, I thought of them as real people, so I was all the more involved in their fate. Every once in a while I kept reminding myself that – even if Kivrin makes it out of this alive and can return to the present – all of these people will have been dead for 700 years, with or without a deadly plague, and it totally killed me. If you can get me to care that much about your characters, you have done something right!

Connie Willis is doubtlessly a great writer, but one really annoying habit she has in this book is the constant repetition of important facts. Two characters would have a conversation about when the plague came to England (1348, in case you’re wondering, and I’ll probably never forget it) to make sure us readers are up to date on this important bit of information. Then a character would be thinking the exact same information – sometimes even in the exact same words – to himself again. And in the following chapter, there’d be at least two other incidences where someone thinks or mentions when the plague came to England. The same goes for the three types of plague, how a virus spreads, what medieaval doctors tried to cure the plague, etc. etc.
I understand that the author wants her readers to have a good knowledge base for the story to work but just because someone doesn’t know very much about the Middle Ages doesn’t mean we’re all morons who have to be told the same thing 50 times in a row. We’re already involved in these characters’ lives – we care. So vital information is more likely to stick anyway because we’re just as worried about Kivrin as Mr. Dunworthy is. And we’re just as aware of the danger Dr. Ahrens is in because she’s treating hundreds of sick, contagious patients every day.

With that little rant out of the way, let me tell why I still loved this book. It is precisely because I was so besotted with the characters that I didn’t care how the author kind of talked down to me. Yeah, fine, so you think I need to be reminded yet again how each of the three plague types manifests, but if that’s what it takes for me to see what happens to Kivrin, then so be it. Were this not such a great story, I probably would have been much more annoyed with this, but because I adored the ideas and the characters and the plot, it was easier for me to just let it go. And I did learn a great deal about the time period and about diseases in general…

Connie Willis does a fantastic job of slowly building up her world and her characters, of making readers care for them, flawed as they may be, and then cranking things up to eleven on the emotion scale. I cried almost constantly throughout the last quarter of the book for various reasons. Characters dying, characters showing incredible courage, humanity working together in spite of terrible odds… It’s true I may have been a bit more susceptible to scenes like that because we’re dealing with similar situations in our world. Doctors working without sleep for days, nurses trying to make very ill patients as comfortable as possible, regardless of the danger to themselves – it’s all here in this book and it’s happening in our world right now too! And because now I know just how close to home Connie Willis hit with her fictional tale, I was all the more weepy.

If you’re currently reading only books to escape the real world, steer clear away from this one. But once this Corona pandemic is over and we have returned to some kind of normality (however that will look), I urge you to pick this up. It didn’t win a Hugo and a Nebula for nothing. This book makes me understand why Willis has so many die hard fans and why she keeps getting nominated for awards. It will proably be a while until I dare to pick up another book by her because I can only handle so many emotions at a time, but after reading Doomsday Book, I fully plan on reading her entire back catalogue. What a an amazing book!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

3 thoughts on “SFF Plagues: Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

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