The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of those flawed books that you still can’t help but love. Please note that this review will have spoilers in, so read on at your own peril!
In the future, time travel has been invented, and historians use it to study their areas of interest. One student at Oxford, Kivrin, is about to go back into the Middle Ages. Though going back that far can be dangerous, the head of the history department is on vacation and the professor filling in is cocky and eager to show his worth. Mr. Dunsworthy, another professor in the department, is not so sure about the whole thing but is overruled. Shortly after Kivrin is sent back, however, the technician seeks out Mr. Dunsworthy to try to tell him about something that went wrong, but before he can he collapses from disease. An epidemic soon falls upon London.
Even worse, unbeknownst to them, Kivrin falls ill almost immediately after reaching the medieval ages. Although she is picked up and taken care of, she needs to return to the exact spot she first appeared at a specific date in order to get back to her own time—and she has no idea where that spot is.
Alternating between Kivrin and Mr. Dunsworthy perspectives, The Doomsday Book is an almost perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, and excitement. Willis’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny.
Part of the problem is the length. This very easily could have been edited down from the 600 or so pages that it is, especially the first half of Kivrin’s adventures in the past. No real progress is made during those chapters, and while Willis is skilled enough that you never have to power through, it does drag.
The characters in the past, too, are faulty. Some aren’t developed enough and others get involved in subplots that are never resolved. It turns out that the mistake the technician found was that Kivrin was accidentally sent back to 1348, the year the Black Plague reached England. Ultimately, every character in the past other than Kivrin dies from it. Willis could have meant this to be one of those books where everything is normal until a catastrophic event interrupts daily life, but as it is, she really just sets out the building blocks for subplots (so-and-so likes a married woman?) but then does nothing with them so that it just seems like set up for no reason. Though the Mr. Dunsworthy chapters also suffer from this, they are nowhere near as bad as the medieval ages.
But despite these problems, The Doomsday Book is an irresistible read. Willis is a Grand Master in science fiction and for good reason. It’s a case of where the author is already so skilled that their flaws are even more noticeable than had they come from a lesser writer.