Boy, Medieval England sure sounds fun!
Here (following her previous Hugo-winning novella, Fire Watch), Willis portrays a history department at Oxford in the later 21st century in which historians can work “in the field” with the help of a time machine. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a practicing academic historian, and this was one of the Hugo-winning novels that got me really excited and prompted me to start this project. I love the idea. I didn’t love the execution quite as much.
There are really two parallel stories going on here. The central plot involves an undergraduate girl named Kirvin and her “fieldwork” in a 14th century English town. The other remains in the 21st century and follows her mentor, Professor Dunworthy, who worried that 14th century England was far too dangerous a place for Kirvin to work in. After Kirvin departs, both have to deal with serious outbreaks of disease (through a bit of a contrivance…) Dunworthy tries to monitor and protect the lifeline to Kirvin in the past, despite the pressures of an epidemic and quarantine. Kirvin tries to blend in and forges some connections with an aristocratic family and a town priest, but she soon faces her own germ-spawned disaster.
These are interesting storylines, but I wasn’t always happy with Willis’s presentation. She’s a fantastic writer, but, the future portions especially, are written as a comedy of manners. In other words, lots of obnoxious and ridiculously stuffy people wander around and obsess about keeping up appearances and maintaining social status in the face of horrible events. It starts out as droll satire, but soon turns incredibly dark. And by dark, I mean dark. Maybe this is a bit spoliery, but I feel I should say in the way of warning: this novel has a very high body count, and no one is really safe. So, lots of people die in horribly disgusting ways, and the darker it gets, the more frustrating and annoying the “comedy of manners” gets…which very well may be Willis’s point. Nonetheless, while it’s good for characters to have obstacles to overcome, I don’t think those obstacles should be too petty or obnoxious. “Annoyed” is just not an emotion that I look for in novels.
Her presentation of the past was pretty strong. Again, you have some rather annoying people obsessed with social minutae, but, to be fair, social minutae meant a great deal more in a society with severe class distinctions. When travelling to the past, I think authors should always be aware of two conflicting historical realities that I think are summed up nicely by clichés: “the past is a foreign country” and “people are people.” The past (especially a fairly decent past) should be alien at the same time that we see universal themes. Willis does a pretty good job (better than most) of that here. On the other hand, Kirvin does not have much to do for most of the novel (and spends scores of pages in a delirium). By the two-thirds point, I shared Dunworthy’s indignation that they would send an undergraduate so far back.
The novel did a great job of annoying me, and an even better job of making me feel depressed. And that does take a good deal of skill. Willis's talent as a writer was always apparent, even as the book frustrated me. There’s also an ending here that I wouldn’t exactly call redemptive, but it was satisfying, and beautifully written. I liked a lot of this book quite a bit, even if it didn’t entirely live up to some high expectations.