Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

21 October, 2014

Doomsday Book

I am also calling it the Domesday Book because I would imagine that’s what you’d like to call it, you are so convinced something awful’s going to happen to me. I’m watching you in the observation area right now, telling poor Dr. Ahrens all the dreadful dangers of the 1300s. You needn’t bother. She’s already warned about time lag and every single mediaeval disease in gruesome detail, even though I’m supposed to be immune to all of them. And warned me about the prevalence of rape in the 1300s. And when I tell her I’ll be perfectly all right she doesn’t listen to me either. I will be perfectly all right, Mr. Dunworthy.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an incredible novel. Well-written, pacey, it’s relentless in driving the story forward while keeping the terror just in check. Almost from the start, Willis flings you into the world of academic experimental history at Oxford circa 2054.

It’s just before Christmas and Kivrin, a Medieval history student, is determined to time-travel back to the Middle Ages to experience life as it really was. The absence of the Department Head meant that she was able to convince the acting Head at Brasenose College, Gilchrist, to authorise her drop even though Dunworthy, her mentor at Balliol, warns her against the dangers of traveling so far back in time. For Gilchrist. trying to maximise his trajectory up the career ladder, is planning to send Kivrin back to 1320, before the plague crosses over to England. With so little real information about actual daily life in the Middle Ages, Kivrin spends every moment of her time preparing, learning all the relevant languages, medical information, daily customs so that she will blend in seamlessly. Dr. Mary Ahrens has also prepped her at the hospital, giving her all the necessary inoculations including against bubonic plague, and enhancing her immunity.

Amidst severe misgivings from both Dunworthy and Ahrens, Kivrin goes through and the others make preparations to pick her up 2 weeks later. But something goes wrong and Badri, the university’s best tech who supervised the drop, falls ill just as soon as he finds Dunworthy. And Oxford goes into lockdown as a mysterious pandemic brings down those involved in Kivrin’s drop, one after another. The net, which allows the time-travel, works in a paradox where nothing that will change the course of history can get through. But something unforeseen has happened and no one is sure where Kivrin is. So what exactly happened here, and will they be able to get Kivrin back?

Kivrin finds herself transported to the Middle Ages but nothing is as she expected. The net was supposed to drop her near the village of Skendgate, close to Oxford, and her aim is to record everything she finds there so that when she returns she can help Dr. Montoya with her archeological dig. But she isn’t sure whether the trail she has found is the Oxford-Bath Road and whether the smattering of dwellings she spies down the hill is actually Skendgate. But she is suddenly overcome with fatigue and before she knows it, she is ill and someone has come to rescue her, and she finds herself in a household filled with fourteenth century people, in all their unwashed, superstitious glory. And she can’t understand them, their pronunciation differing from the Middle English she was taught. While Kivrin fears she will spend Christmas ill in bed instead of completing her research, something worse comes along and people begin to drop like flies. She should have landed in 1320, 28 years before the plague arrives in Oxford. But something has gone wrong.

She has a fever, but no buboes, and she isn’t coughing or vomiting. Just the fever.

In Doomsday Book Willis has created a complex, chaotic and thrilling tale mixing futuristic technology with old-world academic squabbling and melds it to the horrors of medieval society faced with the onslaught of the bubonic plague. It is seamless and the terror relentless. There is just a wonderful mixture of drama, speculation and comedy from a futuristic but still identifiable Oxford to a more earthy fourteenth century guise. I love the bit where Dr. Ahrens asks Kivrin whether she would like her nose cauterised as

the smells of the fourteenth century could be completely incapacitating, that we’re simply not used to excrement and bad meat and decomposition in this day and age. I told her nausea would interfere significantly with her ability to function.

And as Oxford in 2054 quickly buckles into a chaotic epicentre of disease control, Dunworthy, hounded by his secretary and a group of stranded American bellringers, finds a helper in Colin, Dr. Ahrens’ grand nephew, who injects a festive cheer in the nightmare from which he may be unable to rescure Kivrin. Colin is such a great character with his interjections of ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘necrotic’ which makes it seem as though he’s crawled out of an E. Nesbit book. And Kivrin is a protagonist that Willis can be proud of, strong, intelligent, scared and yet fearless; a true seeker of knowledge, with Dunworthy and Dr. Ahrens making formidable allies. As both Kivrin and Dunworthy battle through their respective timelines, will they both survive? And can Dunworthy bring his student back alive?

Doomsday Book has seen many years on my shelf and so many of my book blogging friends have entreated me to read this book and I wish I had listened to them earlier. It’s a magnificent story, far superior to so many time-traveling books and films I’ve seen over the years. I wish they’d make a live action adaptation of this but I fear they would spoil it. And boy am I glad Willis has written more novels in her Oxford Time Travel series. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered whether what we read in history books or watch in documentaries even come close to how life was really like in the past? Imagine studying history, really studying history by actually traveling to the past.

I’m off to read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear next.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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6 Responses to “Doomsday Book by Connie Willis”

  1. Mystica Says:

    Like the sound of this one.


  2. She’s an author I’ve not read – but I do have To Say Nothing of the Dog on my shelves – one for the TBR dare for me after Christmas perhaps.

    • sakura Says:

      I’m reading that at the moment – it’s a lot lighter than Doomsday Book but interesting nonetheless. Aah, TBR dare – I may have to join you.

  3. aartichapati Says:

    My first book in this universe by Willis was To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I loved, but is written very differently than her other books. I admit I didn’t love The Doomsday Book – I found it pretty slow (though I loved the priest. He was wonderful). But it did a very good job of showing just how isolated people must have felt during the plague – so scary.

    • sakura Says:

      That’s really interesting. I’m reading To Say Nothing of the Dog after the Doomsday Book and am finding the difference in style came as a bit of a surprise – it’s so light after the darkness of the middle ages. But I’m loving the recurring characters and am looking forward to finishing it.


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