I’d never read any Connie Willis before. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, so I got into this right away.
I’m going to start with general comments, so you can decide if it sounds interesting and if so, avoid spoilers. There’s a Line of Truth later on where things get heavy.
The setup is simple: in 2054, we have time travel, and the major use seems to be by historians. The book deals with the historians of Oxford, notably James Dunworthy, who’s in charge of research into the 20th century, for Balliol, and Gilchrist, who has the equivalent position for medieval times, at Brasenose. The 20th century faculty has been doing this for awhile, but Medieval is sending back its first historian, an undergrad named Kivrin. Unfortunately Gilchrist is more eager than competent, and the customary precautions have been skipped or half-assed. But Kivrin at least is well prepared, and really wants to go. So what could go wrong…?
This is paradox-free time travel, courtesy of The Cosmos. If you aim at a particular time and place, you might not get quite there, especially if it’s important historically. Plus you need special equipment and expertise… it becomes important later on that there’s only one time travel machine at Oxford. In effect this means the traveler has to be very very careful to meet at the agreed-on point and time if they want to return.
I have to say that the historians’ methods invite trouble. A simple example: Dunworthy mentions an exploratory jaunt he took to the 20th century. He had to get to Paddington station and take a train to get to the rendezvous point. Only when he arrived, Paddington was closed for some reason. He made it back, but it was close. When even a simple trip can be so difficult, what about a trip to the Middle Ages?
Kivrin is well tutored on medieval life, inoculated against the prevailing diseases, and carefully dressed in an medieval outfit, but she’s sent with no electronic devices (except a recorder/translator), no weapons, no medicines, no money. It seems pretty irresponsible, especially as she’s aiming for 1320, which was till recently rated a 10 of 10 on the scale of “centuries you really don’t want to go to”. (Gilchrist thinks it really wasn’t that bad, so he re-rated it.) I won’t say this is a flaw in the book, as the irresponsibility of the attempt is thoroughly experienced and explored by the characters.
Worldbuilding besides time travel is minimal… Oxford in 60 years’ time (the book was published in 1992) seems pretty contemporary. Dunworthy seems to be head of Balliol, so there’s a good deal about his other responsibilities, from dealing with helicopter parents to hosting a group of American bell-ringers. A lot of this is at Wodehouse levels… amusing but not exactly in tune with the rest of the book.
Once Kivrin gets to the 14th century, she has to fit into the life of a medieval manor house. This part of the book is a lot of fun. She starts out with severe language problems: her electronic translator can’t handle the local Middle English. Willis gives plenty of samples; I’m happy to report that I figured it out long before the translator does. (Hint: Willis makes heavy use of a typographical trick to obfuscate it.) She gets to know the family and the tiny village it’s staying in. A clever bit is that it’s interacting with the six-year-old daughter that’s key to understanding the language and the family.
Willis is clear that being a female time traveler in 1320 is particularly dangerous. Dunworthy perhaps over-worries this, to the point of exasperating Kivrin. She and Gilchrist have worked out an angle: she was traveling with retainers, but attacked by ruffians and left alone. Now, this only solves part of the problem (explaining why she’s alone), and doesn’t address allowing her to proceed alone. But I’d say the book finds a good balance between respecting the difficulties a woman would face in the Middle Ages, and respecting her agency as a highly trained modern person.
Did I hint that things go wrong? Things go wrong.
OK, this is the Line of Truth. The book goes off into grimmer territory, and if you don’t want to know about that, stop here.
Right in chapter 2, we get problems. Badri, the tech in charge of the temporal insertion, gets extremely sick. Without giving too much away, this sickness spreads throughout Oxford and greatly impedes the modern team in keeping track of Kivrin.
Kivrin, not coincidentally, comes down with the same illness, which complicates her first days in the past. She gets better, but perhaps you’re seeing a theme here. Later on a far more serious sickness, an epidemic, comes to the village.
If you’ve read Iain M Banks’s Against a Dark Background, you know how hard an author can treat his characters. Willis is far more brutal. The final chunk of the book is almost cruel, as Willis destroys hope after hope. I’m not sure it was necessary to be quite as thorough as she was, but it’s certainly effective.
A curiosity of Willis’s storytelling is how much time the characters spend trying things that don’t work. In part this is basic narrative: an adventure plot generally consists of a number of attempts that don’t work followed by a final try that does. But most of the attempts are much smaller scale, nearly pointless– e.g. Dunworthy tries to contact an alternative tech, can’t get through on the telephone, has to try later. Kivrin tries various things to ameliorate the epidemic on her end, to little effect. It’s certainly realistic, but it’s unusual for a genre novel.
The one bright spot is Colin, a bright and resourceful twelve-year-old who’s visiting his great-aunt Mary, the chief university doctor. He ends up– spoiler– helping out in the past, and the general air of incompetence doesn’t extend to him; e.g. he’s the only one who thinks to bring a flashlight and a GPS device.
Bottom line: it’s a really good story, the characters are fun on both temporal sides, and it’s also a very grim ride.
(I learn from Wikipedia that there are three further novels, all featuring Dunworthy, but the time travel is to the 19th and 20th centuries instead.)