Doomsday Book – Review

Connie Willis is one of the Grand Masters of science fiction and I always wanted to read her books. She is like a Queen of Time Travel with 4 Hugo winning novels based on Time Travel. I love Time Travel stories so I had to check out her books. The first book in her Oxford Time Travel series is Doomsday Book. I had read a short story by this author and it was amazing so I had high expectations going into this book and I still loved it.

The main protagonist Kivrin time travels to Medieval age since she wants to learn more about people who lived in 1300s as a historian. Her mentor Dunworthy cautions her against taking such a risky expedition, but with the help of Gilchrist, who is the acting Head of History department of Oxford, she still embarks on this time travel journey. As you can expect, everything that can go wrong, goes wrong and she ends up in the wrong time period. She ends up in 1348, instead of 1320 right in the middle of Plague outbreak. In the mean time, there is a flu outbreak in the present world which prevents the historians from pulling her back from 1348.

The time travel element of the story was done very well. The author defines what can and cannot happen when a person time travels. She also introduces the concept of time slippage which takes care of correcting incidents in such a manner that history doesn’t change because of this time travel drop. Also what steps need to be taken before a person is sent to a different era. This is the best time travel story I have read so far.  But the book is more of a historical fiction. I went into this expecting to learn a lot about Plague and middle ages and I was not disappointed.

The book is extremely slow paced and very much character focused. It is not an action packed thriller but instead takes a more realistic approach. I usually do not like slow paced books. But this book was an exception since I loved the fact that it took its own time to develop the characters and even though some plot points seems irrelevant to the main plot, the author tied everything neatly at the end. Even the characters which seemed unimportant in the beginning contributed in some way to the plot.

I was initially disappointed that the story focuses only on a single medieval village and we never get to see Knights or Kings or other towns. But then I realized that since the author had developed each and every character in that village so well, it was like a punch in the gut when plague strikes and people start falling dead. You can empathize with the main character who has developed an emotional bond with the villagers.

Before I read this novel, I had hardly any idea about the Black Death or Plague. I had read briefly about it in Dan Brown’s Inferno. But other than that, I did not have any idea about this epidemic which seems to have killed half of Europe. The author has done extensive research on this topic and she gives us statistics and even medical explanation for the outbreak, types of plagues and how they spread etc. The author has also done a lot of research on the medieval age. She describes the clothes they wore, about how glass windows were not used, how sanitation was not even a concept they knew, how they had no idea about contaminations or infections or how diseases spread, no drainage system, how tallow candles were used and many such interesting things that I was not aware of. It was interesting to learn how the people in those times thought epidemics were a punishment from God for their sins.

It took me the entire month of March to complete this book. But I feel like I have read something worthwhile and have gained a lot of knowledge from this book. This book had some amazing female characters. Mr. Dunworthy was my favorite character from this book for the care that he shows to Kivrin. I am planning to read the other books in Connie Willis’ time travel series of novels. I am now also interested in learning more about other epidemic outbreaks in history and also about the history of medicine, antibiotics etc.

I gave this book 4.5 stars. I deducted 0.5 stars because the editing could have been better. Some unnecessary scenes and descriptions could have been avoided. E.g: There is a cow which makes frequent appearances in the book and I have no idea why the author kept referring to that cow so many times, only to be later abandoned in a village where everyone was dead. Some characters kept falling unconscious just when they were about to reveal something and that was frustrating to me as a reader. The book could have been shorter, crispier and more fast paced if the editing had been better.

Please give this book a try if you love science fiction or historical fiction or books with strong female characters.

My favorite passage from the book which I just loved – (mild spoilers ahead)

Maisry hasn’t come back. She’s probably sleeping in the high seat of some manor house the inhabitants have fled and when this is all over she’ll become the ancestor of some noble old family.

Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with our time, Mr. Dunworthy. It was founded by Maisry and the bishop’s envoy and Sir Bloet. And all the people who stayed and tried to help, like Roche, caught the plague and died.

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