Well, this is a change of pace. We’re back in the Oxford of the 2050s that we saw in Willis’ The Doomsday Book. Again, we have historians as time travelers, and again the science fiction aspect takes a backseat to a focus on characterization and English “comedy of manners” humor. Time travelling is important to the plot, especially the novel’s climax, but we spend most of the novel in Victorian England while our protagonists try to return a cat and discover the fate of an ugly vase.
In the 2050s, the historians are preparing for a celebration of the renovation of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed over a century earlier in the blitz. The inconsiderate and monomaniacal Lady Shrapnell has pushed young historian Ned Henry to the brink in her quest for a decorative vase dubbed “the bishop’s bird stump.” Professor Dunworthy tries to protect Ned by sending him to return a rescued cat to 1888, from whence it had been taken by another historian, Verity Kindle, after a near-drowning. Verity is close to a young Victorian woman named Tossie, and Ned meets a nice young man named Terrence, and soon the two Victorians fall in love. Unfortunately, they’re both supposed to marry other people and the course of history may depend upon their progeny. Verity and Ned, fearing that it is their involvement that has changed these relationships, desperately try to find Tossie’s true husband-to-be.
While the wonderful writing and clever dialogue of The Doomsday Book remain, the stakes are clearly much lower than the dual raging epidemics of Willis’s earlier novel, which managed to kill off most of the characters by its conclusion. You don’t often hear that a story falters because the stakes are too high, but The Doomsday Book may be the exception that proves the rule. It’s hard to laugh at fussy upper class twits when everyone is slowly and painfully dying in two different eras. However, in a light tale of Victorian love, this kind of comedy is quite a bit more welcome. This is a really fun and sweet novel, and I think it accomplishes more by doing less. It still has a lot to say about destiny and random chance, and it can still be quite suspenseful. Willis uses a Victorian historian, Professor Peddick, to introduce dueling theories of history – that it is the product of the agency of a few important, individual decisions or that it is the product of broader forces, from mass movements to weather and geography. These ruminations fit in perfectly with the novel’s themes and enrich the overall experience. At the same time, the relationship between Verity and Ned is cute, and gives the reader something to root for.
It’s very different from most of the Hugo winners, which tend to feel like important epics even when they’re brief. There are no intergalactic worlds or dark dystopias here. If I had to describe my experience reading this novel in one word, it would be “relaxing.” That might sound like damning with faint praise, I wouldn’t want every book I read to take the same attitude, but I rather enjoyed this sandwiched between Forever Peace and A Deepness in the Sky.