Doomsday Book – Connie Willis

About the Book 

In the year 2054, students research the past by living in it. So when Kivrin Engle, a history student at Oxford, enters Brasenose College’s time machine for transport back to 1320s England, no one anticipates any problems.

But her two-week project takes a frightening turn. A mutant virus has been spreading through Oxford, and Kivrin arrives in the past delirious with fever. She is found and taken to a manor house, and when she recovers, she can no longer locate the time machine rendezvous point.

As Kivrin struggles to adjust to a past that’s not quite what she expected, a past where the Black Death is beginning to ravage a mystified, terrified population. With the only people who know where she’s gone seriously ill themselves, will Kivrin ever find her way back to the future? Or has she become a permanent exile in a deadly time?

578 pages (paperback)
Published in 1992

Doomsday Book is my first Connie Willis novel and it certainly is an ambitious work. There are a lot of pages here, and lot of very heavy content on those pages. It was doubly adventurous of me because I really don’t like time travel that much, and this entire novel is based on it.

Doomsday Book was written before the age of cell phones, and much of our modern technology. This was published in 1992, and you can kind of tell that much of our technology just isn’t conceptualized. Some of the futuristic parts of the novel are kind of clunky. That’s not the author’s fault, but readers will inevitably be able to tell that this was written before the turn of the century.

Secondly, the future/past alternating portions of the novel are rather unbalanced in some respects. For example, it was very hard for me to sympathize and care about many of the characters in the future portion of the novel, as they seemed shockingly uncertain and malleable in the face of what is happening, and that sort of thing crawled under my skin.

Kivrin truly is the star of this novel. Her journey back in time is absolutely fascinating, and those portions of the novel absolutely glowed. She was an educated, self-reliant woman who was absolutely unprepared for much of what she ran across. Willis way of merging future details and nuances (I don’t know what else to say without giving key plot points away) with Kivrin’s journey into the past was nothing short of astounding.

This is the kind of novel I can read again and again and learn something new each time.

Which goes to say that the amount of research Willis did before writing this novel is staggering. I learned more while reading this book than I ever expected, and I never felt like it was infodumpy or textbookish. So much of the information is given to readers through Kivrin’s prepared-but-unprepared perspective on the journey she has undertaken. Furthermore, key plot points are historically relevant, like the black plague, and Willis does absolutely nothing to make her novel prettier than the time period warrants. The 1300’s was a very dirty, uneducated, period of history, and Willis doesn’t hide that at all. In fact, it is so realistic, so incredibly detailed that it felt more real than I ever expected.

When you balance that incredible reality with the conflicts that take place in the future, and how two-dimensional many of the characters are, you’ll see why I felt that this book was so unbalanced. I could have read an entire novel based in the past. The future portions, while important, felt more like they were slowing me down from enjoying the real meat of the novel.

This novel, as I’ve said, has a lot going on, and it will take you time and concentration to read. Some of the novel goes really slow, and other parts you won’t be able to get enough of. That goes back to the whole “unbalanced” thing I’ve been referring to throughout this review. However, the plot itself, both in the past and the future, become incredibly powerful and fast moving as the novel progresses. In one storyline the fast paced plot will be almost instant. In another, it will take time for things to build up to a boil.

The ending is heart wrenching and gut churning. In general this novel will require some emotional fortitude to read. It’s weighty, and some of the scenes are very dark and incredibly uncomfortable. However, that’s part of why I loved this book so much. I don’t think discomfort is a bad thing, when reading a book. Often times that discomfort really pushes me past myself, and that’s when the word-magic really happens. The slow, tedious future points aside, I learned more about the past, and human nature while reading this work than I ever expected.

Doomsday Book has me kind of stumped. If I look at the work as a whole, and judge it purely on the style of the work, it would be three stars. It’s just too unbalanced between the absorbing, incredible past, and the rather mundane, tedious future that hasn’t stood the test of time well. If I judge it based on how much I enjoy it, I’d put it at a four star level. Despite the kind of annoying future, the past is so raw, emotional, and full of heart and knowledge that it helped me overlook the slow future.

I think this novel is one people will either love or hate. It is certainly worth reading, just to try it out. However you react to it, one thing is certain – this book will teach you a lot about yourself, about others, about trials and trauma, and about history.



3.5/5 stars

5 Responses

  • The future history of Doomsday never really worked for me (and I read it in the 90’s. As you say, it hasn’t even aged well from there). The portrait of the past, though, is pretty darned solid.

  • My emotional fortitude wasn’t up to the challenge — I threw this book away when I finished it and never touched another Connie Willis. I realise I probably missed some great books because of that, but this was too dark and horrific for me. Though the fact I can still remember the horror 20 years later speaks to how well those “heart wrenching, gut churning” parts were written.

  • I’m a sucker for time travel stories like this (explains my addiction to Kage Baker company novels!), so it’s no surprise I enjoyed Doomsday Book. And the weaknesses you mentioned? I completely agree with them. but, still…. time travel gone wrong, i can’t get enough of it.

    I also like reading things that were written in the pre-cell phone age. back when we actually had to memorize our friend’s phone #s. 😉

  • helen

    will someone please milk that damned cow!

    the way so much of the future plot would have been solved in short order with mobile phones was extraordinarily annoying and pretty unforgivable since they had been invented in the 80’s. putting that to oneside i loved, loved this book

  • Shannon

    This likely was not written before cell phones, actually. I know cell phones were widely in use by 1992 because I had one, and were common enough in the early 80s that I recall seeing characters on tv using them. So it’s a little baffling to me that in the 2054 of this book we have time travel but no sort of reliable communication system. I was so annoyed by that and so many other things about the future portions of the book that I couldn’t even really enjoy the past parts of the book, which were far better. I didn’t like Kivrin, though. The only character I felt any sympathy for at all was the priest. So, definitely a love it or hate it kind of book. Personally I hated it and I’m pretty sure I’ll never pick up another Connie Willis book.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.