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Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Posted on: February 11th, 2013 by Shannon Fay No Comments

As part of World’s Without End’s ‘Women in Genre’ challenge I am reading a sci-fi or fantasy novel each month from an author I have never read before. For more information on the challenge visit: https://www.worldswithoutend.com/authors_wogf.asp.



Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis

The premise of ‘Dooms Day Book’ is a great hook with multiple barbs. Kivrin, a young historian at Oxford Collage in the near future, goes back in time so she can see for herself what the medieval ages were really like. So that’s hook number one. As soon as she goes, an epidemic breaks out in Oxford and the whole city is quarantined. Also exciting. And then the characters in 2055 Oxford start to suspect that there might be a connection between Kivrin going back in time and the epidemic. Better and better.

But even though I found the basic plot intriguing, for the first half of the book we don’t get much closer to the heart of the mystery. The characters spin their wheels, going on for pages about the problems at hand without getting any closer to solving them. With Kivrin this is a bit annoying but it’s offset by the fact that Kivrin is an interesting character in an interesting setting. Interesting characters and an interesting world can make up for a lack of movement in the plot, and the Middle Ages section of the book delivers on those fronts.

The future Oxford plotline on the other hand, is just annoying. It also goes in circles for the first half of the novel but unlike the Middle Ages storyline which is populated by interesting people who have multiple facets to them, the future characters are mainly a group of one-dimensional whiners. You can almost turn it into a game to see how fast you can pin down each character’s defining personality trait. Montoya, an American archeologist, will complain about how the quarantine is keeping her from her dig, Gilchrist, the head of the medieval department, will act like an ass and complain, and Dunworthy, our viewpoint character for these sections, will worry about Kivrin.

Not a page goes by where Dunworthy doesn’t worry about Kivrin. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, it’s just that this is pretty much all Dunworthy does. I know that Kivrin is his protégée, but doesn’t he have any other students? Or anyone else in his life for that matter? Dunworthy is so focused on Kivrin, it’s hard to imagine him even existing before Kivrin came into his life.

There are some interesting characters in the future sections, such as Dr. Mary Ahrens and her grand-nephew Collin. They seem to actually have a life outside the events of the book, to have pasts and previous experiences that influence their current actions (even Kivrin [and I like Kivrin] seems to have come out of a vacuum, never referencing her life before she came to Oxford). We get to see a lot of Mary and Collin, but I would have loved it if one of them were our viewpoint character rather than the dull Dunworthy.

About halfway through the book the plot picks up. Even though the reader might guess some of the twists, they still propel the story in an interesting direction. The closer the book gets to the end the harder it gets to put down. I was impressed with how Willis was able to make the final stretch both increasingly bleak while also upping the tension. Most writers end up sacrificing one for the other, and it’s a testament to Willis’s skill that I wasn’t entirely sure how things would turn out for Kivrin and Dunworthy.

While I found the first half of this book a bit of a slog, by the end it had shaped up. Things that annoyed me at the start of the book (the timey-whimey science, one-note characters) had filled out enough that they no longer bothered me and the things that I liked at the start just got better. All in all an enjoyable book, though part of me wishes it could have been all the middle ages, all the time.



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