When three Oxford historians become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler's bombers attempt to pummel London into submission. Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians' supervisor and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle to find them.
Willis is hard to pin down as a writer. This is not what you'd call hard-core science fiction, nor is it precisely historical fiction; it's her own unique blend of the two, and it plays out quite satisfactorily. You have her crew of "historians" from the Oxford of 2060 being dropped into the past to conduct historical research (and hopefully not percipitate historical mayhem by affecting even the most minor of events), and you have Willis' unbelievably keen eye for the most minute of historical detail describing the Blitz to you as if it were happening this very moment.
The science fiction angle of time travel is a comfortable enough trope that people who don't consider themselves big science fiction fans will nonetheless be able to read and enjoy this novel; you don't have to be heavily invested in the genre and all its conventions to enjoy this novel. There's jargon associated with the sci-fi angle, but it's never overwhelming, and it's something the reader can easily pick up on. As for the historical fiction angle, Willis doesn't fall into any of the traps of that genre, either: no romantacizing the past, no rose-colored glasses, no wasn't-everything-so-much-more-innocent-then? The Blitz is there in all its gritty detail, and I must stress again how much research Willis must have done to write this novel, because the amount of historical information is simply astounding (at times, almost overwhelming).
The characters-- one wouldn't call them endearing (except for, perhaps, the continually mischief-causing orphans Alf and Binnie), one would call them human, very human. And that's what makes them so very believable. They may populate a sci-fi novel, but they're utterably relatable. Each one has a role he or she sees him or herself fit to play, responsibilities he or she feels must be undertaken, obligations to shoulder: they feel all of this in day-to-day life as well as in their duty not to alter history by their actions.
One thing to address about this novel is that it is a sequel. What if you haven't read Blackout? Well, you can still read this. You will find that the text makes reference to events that happened in the previous novel, but these are usually contextualized, so you can follow along pretty well. You may be confused for the first 30 or 40 pages, when it will seem as if a lot of characters and situations are thrown at you all at once, but this confusion will clear as the characters (who are all well-developed; Willis doesn't depend on the previous novel to have done all of the character developement already) become familiar to you. One thing that might possibly be somewhat confusing if you've never read any of Willis' Time-Travelling novels is the language surrounding the time travel itself: "drops," "the net," "the continuum." As I said before, this is not dense sci-fi, so you can pick up on these, too, but it would make for a more comfortable read if you had at least some familiarity with these terms, if not from the novel preceding this one, then from one of Willis' other novels about the Oxford Time-Travellers (any one would do-- for a light introduction, I suggest To Say Nothing of the Dog).
Willis pulls off a real epic here. Rich in detail, rich in mining the questions of what weighs on a person's conscience, rich in bringing the past to life, All Clear is a captivating read that will bring both the past and the future to life for you.
Polly, Mike, and Eileen are time-traveling historians who went to WWII England to study various aspects of the Blitz. But their assignments go wrong, and the three find themselves trapped in the winter of 1940-41. For hundreds of pages, the three search for a way out and try to understand what has gone wrong.
All Clear begins exactly where Blackout ended. There is no transition, no recapping, thus making it an impossible book to read without having read Blackout. As a continuation, it works well, continuing the plot and style without interruption. Unfortunately, the protagonists spend the next 250 pages as they did in Blackout: rushing hither and thither blindly looking for a way out. I was reminded of a hamster on a wheel running round and round mindlessly.
Fortunately, the second half of All Clear picks up speed and the plot threads come together in a complex and satisfying way. By the end of the book, I was glad that I had persevered. I'm not sure I will reread it anytime soon, but my faith in the author was restored.
Leaving that complaint aside, Blackout/All Clear joins the author's Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog as a masterpiece of the time travel genre. At the same time, it offers a virtual "social history" of England during the Blitz, with glimpses too of the V-1 and V-2 campaigns, the prelude to D-Day, and the outburst of relief on May 7, 1945, when word came of Nazi Germany's surrender. Connie Willis is almost as good an historian as a novelist, and her decades of Blitz research (previously put to good use in "Jack", "Fire Watch", "The Winds of Marble Arch" and other stories) bears abundant fruit here.
Time travel is necessarily a paradoxical concept, which often confuses the writer as thoroughly as the reader. One of the great virtues of this book is that the story line is almost entirely lucid. My only major caveat is that (having given some warning via repeated references to Agatha Christie) the author injects one huge and unfair red herring. To save other readers unnecessary puzzlement (I don't think this qualifies as a "spoiler"), let me note that "Douglas" was a make of British motorcycle and that the name has no other significance in the novel. If you think, as I did for many, many pages, that it's the key to the workings of the space-time continuum, you're wrong.
Aside from an exciting story and historical insight, Blackout/All Clear offers a definite moral, one that emerges well before the author states it openly: "To do something for someone or something you loved - England or Shakespeare or a dog or the Hodbins or history - wasn't a sacrifice at all. Even if it cost you your freedom, your life, your youth." That is the spirit in which the English people approached the gravest challenge in their island's history. It is a spirit that we can use today.
God, I loved this book. Do read Blackout first, and don't worry about feeling confused - everyone's feeling confused, all the characters, everyone.
You don't have to read Willis's other time travel novels first, although if you've read Doomsday Book, there will be an especially poignant resonance for you.
Finished! I enjoyed this immensely - Connie Willis can pull you into a story fast and hard, and she creates characters you can't help but care about. I was swept back into the world of Blackout (note - this is not a sequel to Blackout, it is the second half - you can't read one without the other. Think Tolkien's Lord of the Rings).
The two books are about time historians from 2055 who are studying sociological issues (for example, one is studying ordinary heroes) about humans by traveling to the past. This story is about the group looking at World War II, specifically in London. Willis has dabbled in this before in several shorter books, and I was enthralled with St. Paul's cathedral in London - someplace I had to visit when we got the opportunity to go to London this year. (Yeah, it was great to climb up to the top & imagine the firewatch wardens saving it!)
This book straddles two genres (historical fiction and time-travel science fiction) and would interest fans of either. However, it doesn't fit exactly into either genre, allowing a larger audience. I think those people who don't like science fiction can enjoy this because the time-travel ideas are simple enough and interesting philosophically. There aren't any huge info-dumps where you are slogging through imaginary theories. People who don't like historical fiction can enjoy this because the historical part is not overwrought kings/queens/romance but instead very interesting details about WWII and ordinary people.
The story has multiple plot lines - first there are the separate timelines. Actions in the far future, where the time historians come from, actions in 1940 and actions in 1944. Each chapter is set in one of those times, and each chapter follows a different character's story. It is confusing, but if you relax about the confusion (note, the characters are all confused for much of the book, as well!), you will start to follow what is going on. However, the chapters usually end in a cliffhanger. That annoyed me at first since other plotlines/times/characters followed the cliffhanger - you're anxious about Eileen, then you become worried for Polly, then wondering about Colin, then back to Eileen! It was a bit manipulative, but certainly kept me reading. I did realize that I was able, occasionally, to stop at a cliffhanger (since I wouldn't be finding out for a while) and put the book down to do other things, having the sweet anticipation to bring me back.
The historical detail and the well-thought out time travel theory were important strengths of the book. She wove the information in over both books, and I went back to the first book to re-read parts for the joy of seeing how she pulled it together. The combined books are over 1100 pages - yet I plan to reread sometime (without that 8 month hiatus!). I'm also going to re-read her shorter books about this world she created.
However, because I am such a fan of Mr. Dunworthy and of the parallel time streams that made “Doomsday” so compelling – it was tough for me to stay stranded in World War II with the main characters of “All Clear” while having no idea what was going on in the future. (I understand that put me in the same situation as they - but hey, I’m greedy.)
And yet, I slowly grew to realize as Mike, Eileen and Polly did, that in World War II, the heroes weren’t only the ones we’ve read about in history books. The winning of that war depending on so many small things – so many heroic actions of people fighting for their lives not on the field of battle – but in their homes and in the streets.
“…there’d been a story about an old woman being dug out of the wreckage of what had been her house and the rescue crew asking her if her husband was under there with her. “No, the bloody coward’s at the front!” she’d said indignantly. He’d laughed when he read it, but now he wasn’t so sure it had been a joke. Maybe England was the front, and the real heroes were the Londoners sitting in those tube stations night after night, waiting to be blown to smithereens. And Fordham, lying there in the hospital in traction. And everyone on this train, waiting patiently for it to begin moving again, not giving way to panic of the impulse to call Hitler and surrender just to get it over with. He was going to have to rethink the whole concept of heroism when he got back to Oxford.”
And maybe, in a way, that is the harder fight. When on the battlefield, one is prepared to fight; one has (hopefully) been given the tools and support to fight. If the battle comes unexpectedly to a civilian, it’s a completely different and terrifying situation.
There is a sermon that a minister delivers at a funeral that really touched me. “We join the Home Guard and the ATS and Civil Defence, but we cannot know whether the scrap metal we collect, the letter we write to a soldier, the vegetables we grow, will turn out in the end to have helped win the war or not. We act in faith. But the vital thing is that we act. We do not rely on hope alone, though hope is our bulwark, our light through the dark days and darker nights. We also work, and fight, and endure, and it does not matter whether the part we play is large or small.”
I think the heart of this book is lovely – the idea of living the history that was unwritten – the history of the everyday people who will never be mentioned in any books.
But in the end, I read and liked this book because it was a book about time travel, and interesting characters, and Mr. Dunworthy…and the “what if” scenarios that I can’t get enough of.
And that is why my fingers are crossed that the net will open again and more travelers from Oxford in 2060 will step through.
And this is where [All Clear] opens. The drops are not opening, the world is going crazy and they cannot do anything to save themselves. In the meantime, in 1944 and 1945, another set of historians are working on their assignments. Between all of them, the War emerges. Fortitude South, Bletchley Park, the raids, the Blitz, the people, the soldiers, the young girls that turn from just children to drivers and nurses and helpers. Willis may have written a SF novel but if you forget for a second who our historians are, if you remove the parts where they know what is going to happen and their thoughts because they know it, the novel (the set of novels really) is a marvelous picture of a country in a war - completed with all the heroes (who are real people and act as such here) and everything that a nation did in order to help the world defeat Hitler. Because of the places where our protagonists were situated, we see the full expanse of the war - the tragedies and the comedies in it. And every time when you decide that something was exaggerated, that there was no way things to have been that hard or that chaotic, all you need to do is to pick up a history book. And to realize that what seems impossible had been the easy parts of that war; the things that you cannot even imagine is what had been the little complicated ones. And Britain, and the rest of the good guys had managed to do not just these but the impossible things, the ones that noone in their right mind would have expected to work out (such as the whole Fortitude plan - it would have taken one single idiot to ruin it and ruin Normandy and yet it worked).
And in the middle of this, Polly, Mike and Eileen try to find their way home. But while it is happening, they keep getting pulled into the normal activities of the war. And keep influencing and changing things. The Hodbins reappear (but of course), the troupe is back at rehearsing, the wrapping of packages is still a chore and the war goes on. The novel tone is hurried, everything could finish tomorrow and the historians are running out of time. And it can get a bit repetitious - all of the worries of the historians added to the worries of the war and of the fact that even if they are from the future, they don't know every minute detail of the past. As the end of the novel draws close, the different story lines start collapsing into each other; what had been hinted gets confirmed and... the historians are still stuck - with approaching deadlines (when other, earlier versions of them had already been) and death and loss. And all those warnings from the theorists and the possibility that the past can be changed; that they may have caused Hitler to win this war.
It takes a few words said by a stranger for Polly to realize what is really happening; a truth that had been so obvious ever since the first book (or even earlier in the series). But the most obvious is usually the hardest to see. And it takes a boy in love that is not ready to give up. And the realization of who that boy is at the final pages of the novel is what brings the story full circle.
This is a wonderful and amazing book. It really is the second half of a book. On the same day, I went from finishing Blackout and started reading this book, and it was like going from one chapter to another, not like going from one book to another.
Thank you to Goodreads friend and fellow group member Sarah Pi who didn’t let me see answers to my questions and therefore helped me avoid unwanted spoilers.
I am very proud that less than 1/3 the way through this book, I figured something out, probably because of all of the mysteries I’ve read, and I’m often able to prematurely guess their outcomes too. Even though I figured out that important plot point, the book managed to stay suspenseful for me all the way until the last page. The farther I got into the book, the harder it became to take any breaks from reading it; I was enthralled.
I love Blackout and this book so much didn’t even mind that they’re books 4 and 5 in the Oxford time travel series; normally, I’d want to read the books in exact order, but once I started these books I couldn’t put them aside to read the earlier books first.
This is a brilliant historical fiction and time travel/speculative fiction book, with a very complex time travel story. It’s ingenious and a great deal of fun. It’s funny, tragic, romantic, heartwarming, and completely engrossing. I cared a great deal about many characters. I got in lots of chuckles and smiles, and tears also.
I adored how Agatha Christie makes appearances. (I’ve loved her mystery books for decades.) Very cool! Also appropriate were all the mentions of Ernest Shackleton and his expedition to the South Pole.
This is a beautifully crafted book. I enjoyed how the dialogue between characters was in quotes and characters’ internal dialogue/thoughts were in italics. The quotes that are at the beginning of each chapter are fabulous; both their literary and historical origins and how they relate to what is going on in the book’s story are perfect.
I knew a fair amount about the Blitz, have read about it and listened to people who were there talk about it, I think that I learned more from this book/books than any other source to date. I think I fully appreciated for the first time what people in that time and place experienced.
I can recommend this book to any reader who likes reading historical fiction and/or time travel books and/or any type of speculative fiction. It’s imperative to read Blackout and then this book, preferably one right after the other as I was fortunate to do.
The very best thing about this book, and why I think it has appeal for all readers whatever their favorite genres are, is how it shows the importance in life of loving and caring about and caring for others. I was practically bawling by the end, but this theme runs throughout the entire story.
I felt that the book was over-long for its contents, though - particularly as this is part two, after Blackout, which was also a long book. There was a lot of text given over to the characters worrying and keeping secrets from each other, which seemed unnecessary, most of the time.
There were Americanisms in the dialogue (I know I always mention this) which jarred as I read. People were always going to 'go do something', for example, instead of 'go and do something', which a British English speaker would say. And I'm fairly certain that no railway employee in the 1940s (or now) would have described the Christmas period as 'the holidays'.
My biggest complaint was a geographical one, though. The part where Worthing and Cess take the German PoW to Portsmouth from Gloucestershire, pretending it was Dover, en route to London just doesn't make sense. It would have taken about four hours to drive from Gloucester to Portsmouth in 1944 (at least). Dover is on the extreme edge of southeast England, an hour or two southeast of London. There is no way that Dover would be 'on the way' to London after a four hour drive.
More careful editing by someone familiar with the dialect and geography of the country would have helped the novel enormously, from a British reader' perspective. But it was a good read, no doubt about that.
Review: All Clear, like its predecessor/first-half Blackout, has some problems. It's overlong and a little repetitive. The characters can be kind of dumb. Parts are really predictable. And yet, I firmly do not care. Even while objectively recognizing all of those problems, subjectively, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I was totally absorbed the whole time, I was crying at the end, and I honestly felt a little bereft once it was over and I had to go back to regular life and other audiobooks.
Normally I start reviews with things I liked, and then later get into problems I had with the book. In this case, though, I want to address the issues first, since they're present right from the get-go... but I want to stress that even though I was aware of these issues, that didn't stop me from really enjoying the book.
Okay, so, first. This book is long. The Blackout/All Clear duology is loooooong. I have no problem with long books, obviously, but these books are longer than they need to be. Even though All Clear is longer than Blackout, I thought it did a little better earning its length, because there are fewer repetitive parts. Eileen, Mike, and Polly are all in the same place for most of the book, so while there are still parts that are the same event from multiple perspectives, there's at least not the constant cycling of "I should go check my drop / I can't get to my drop / my drop is not working / why is my drop not working?" from each of the three perspectives like there was in Blackout.
That's not to say that there isn't some going in circles, because there definitely is, which brings me to my second issue, which is that argh the characters are pretty dumb at (narratively convenient) times. In general, they're great characters, and I liked and felt like I knew all three of the leads (although I didn't like that Mike decided he was the one responsible for getting the two girls back to the future, when he was neither the smartest nor the most experienced of the bunch, and the fact that each of them was constantly keeping secrets from the others - to protect their feelings / so they didn't have to worry! - was also kind of obnoxious). But my biggest problem was that they'd occasionally forget decisions that they made or things they knew about the way time travel worked, if it was necessary to lead to the next part of the action. The best example is that as the three are trying to come up with other historians who were in London at the time, and whose drops they could potentially use, they start thinking of historians who had been there much earlier (in future time - that is, a historian who had come to 1940 from 2050 instead of 2060). But they realize that that strategy won't work, as those historians, once they'd got back to the future, didn't mention that Polly/Eileen/Mike had found them in the past, so they obviously didn't find them in the past. Makes sense, right? But then, not much later, they set off to try to contact one of these historians anyways, which leads to the frantic events of the night of 29 December 1940, one of the worst air raids of the war. Narratively convenient, but it's a problem if your readers have a better memory than your characters.
(I also had a little bit of an issue with the characters waffling back and forth about whether or not they were changing history, and I couldn't quite get a bead on whether they believed that time was a chaotic system and the continuum would self-correct to prevent any changes from occurring, or whether they believed that their actions could affect the future. Mostly it seemed like they believed both at the same time, without realizing that "chaotic system" meant that their very presences by definition affected everything else. The story itself comes down clearer on those issues by the end, but it annoyed me that the characters were kind of dumb about it for most of the book. And the way the story resolves these issues is pretty predictable to anyone who reads many time travel stories.)
Okay, so. That all sounds really negative. But the thing was, those are all intellectual problems with that book, but in this case, this book grabbed me on such a visceral/emotional level that those intellectual issues only bothered me in the background. The absolute best part of these books is how vividly Willis brings the daily business of 1940s England to life, and I found her storytelling to be so immersive and so absorbing that I was able to overlook a lot of other things. For example, the night of 29 December 1940, that I mentioned above, takes up quite a few chapters. The motivation for what Polly, Mike, and Eileen are doing on that night - trying to find a historian before he goes back to 2054 - doesn't make a lot of sense, but what they actually wind up doing, the depiction of the action of that night during the air raid, is really compelling. Essentially, whenever the characters were sitting around talking about time travel, it was problematic, but whenever they were out living in 1940, the story was great, and luckily, there's more of the latter than the former.
I also absolutely loved the ending, and the way all of the disparate threads and interstitial pieces and various perspectives came together and into focus. Willis is good at that, at the synthesizing of all of the different threads and themes of her story (see Bellwether), but in this case, it plays less like a farce and more like me bawling my eyes out - even though I'd seen a lot of it coming! - while simultaneously marveling at how well it all fit. Also, the audio production was again excellent - Katherine Kellgren does a great job narrating. The only drawback was that in audio, it's hard to flip back and find a particular scene to re-read it, which was unfortunate since this duology features a number of scenes from different perspectives - particularly at the end of All Clear we get second versions of scenes we'd seen for the first time somewhere in the middle of Blackout - and I wanted to go back to compare.
So, overall, this book was not perfect, and I absolutely understand how some people might have found it long, or dragging, or hard to get through. But I was engaged enough with the characters and immersed enough into the world that I couldn't stop listening, and wound up really loving it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: These books have to be read together, preferably back-to-back (which I almost never do for sequels/series, but made an exception in this case). Definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction and/or time travel-y science fiction, who like their stories vivid and complicated and witty and touching all at once.
OK, Fine. Let us start where so many books go wrong. Let us begin with character. The character development consisted of each of the three main protagonists indulging in counter-productive games of what-ifs for several hundred pages. That is to say, there was no development. In addition to rehashing the same "Oh-nos" over and over again, and wondering in more and more creative ways how they have disturbed the time/space continuum, their reactions made no sense. If there is one thing I hate, is when a character in a book acts willfully stupid. For example, Polly one of the historians left behind, keeps hiding information from her fellow trapped historians. Why? because she wants to spare them the worry? Because being trapped in the middle of a bombing blitz in World War II with no visible means of escaping is not as bad as the fact that she saw her friend and felow trapped historian Merope at D-Day on another assignment? Or that she thought she bumped into their boss Historian down at the church and that somehow that might be important?
As well, the characters have no history. They spend a lot of time making little acerbic asides to themselves about their case. For example, if a regular Londoner asks them if they want to leave, or where's their home, or make some other assignment, 'they will constantly say under their breath or to themselves some pithy remark like, "you have no idea," she muttered. But not once, in the months they spend in the blitz, do they give a thought to their family left behind. It is like they sprouted out of the ground as historians, without any past history. Although Willis obviously has a knack for keeping people guessing (that's why I kept listening), suspense does not make up for the fact that because I didn't know of any good reason for them to go back home to the future- except for that it was their home, it didn't seem as urgent.
Of course, there is always the disturbance in the Time/Space continuum. Willis deals with time as serpentine, a chaotic system (isn't that an oxymoron?) that will correct itself when tampered with. But if it corrects itself, doesn't it mean there is a plan to begin with? And in the end, that is how she resolves it. The historians are just part of the God Chaotic System's big plan. A notion unsatisfactory in the extreme as well as her conception of time travel. If they are so concerned with the time-space continuum it should be obvious to the Historians that the minute they set a foot anywhere, whether it be in the past or in the present, they change it. The principle of uncertainty tells us that. So the fact that these historians go blundering into one of the more volatile times in history and then spend months wondering if every incident that occurs to them- being hit by a bicycle, influencing someone to join the Nurses- is what will lose the war seems too little too late, if not completely asinine.
I feel like I need to counter this review a little by showing a good review of these two books. And I will mention again that this diptych did win the Hugo Award so it might be just me who found it so frustrating. Once again, I probably find myself in the minority, the story of my life...
Beautiful and heartbreaking.
The titles of the books refer to the status of war alerts in Britain in World War II, but in addition, one could say that All Clear does in fact make “all clear” the tangled web of stories that make up the two books.
In All Clear, the saga continues about the lives of three time travelers from the year 2060: Mike, Eileen, and Polly, all students of history. They have come back to London during World War II to witness three key aspects of the war years: the heroism of ordinary Britons from Dover who helped rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, the evacuation of children from London to the English countryside, and the ways in which ordinary Londoners coped with the “Blitz” (the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between September 6, 1940 and May 10, 1941).
The three have been unable to get back to the year 2060 when they were scheduled to return, and are obsessed with the fear that they might have influenced history deleteriously, and that’s why the “doors” they must take back to the future won’t open for them.
In the course of trying to get back, as well as trying to survive the bombings of London until they do so [some thirty thousand civilians died in the Blitz!], they learn invaluable lessons on loyalty and love that transcend space and time, and on the real nature of heroism.
Mike had been looking for historical “heroes” but as he came to discover, "maybe England was the front, and the real heroes were the Londoners sitting in those tube stations night after night, waiting to be blown to smithereens.”
And Polly, who wanted to study how Londoners “coped,” found that, "The day after they’d watched half their city burn down around their ears, Londoners hadn’t sat there feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they’d set about putting out the fires that were still burning and digging people out of the rubble. They’d repaired water mains and railway tracks and telephone lines, shown up at their jobs, even if were they worked was no longer there, swept up glass. Gone on.”
But the author, who so cleverly and poignantly brings this everyday heroism to life in these two books, says it best in her epigraph. Her dedication at the beginning of All Clear reads:
TO ALL THE
and mystery novelists
WHO WON THE WAR.
Polly eventually concludes: "To do something for someone or something you loved … wasn’t a sacrifice at all. Even if it cost you your freedom, your life, your youth.”
Evaluation: As I started All Clear, I was wondering, why did she need two books to tell this story? But by the time I finished and was wiping away my tears while once again admiring Willis’s cleverness, I was hoping fans would prevail upon her to write a third!
Together, the books present a brilliant homage by Willis to the grit and determination of the English people during the most difficult time in their country's existence. The message that each and every one of the firewatchers, canteen workers, ambulance drivers, shopgirls and even mystery novelists combined their efforts to bring about a victory that would not have otherwise been possible. While not every person was always warm and hospitable during this time, almost all `did their bit'.
'All Clear' picks up the story where 'Blackout' leaves off. Polly, Eileen and Mike are stranded in London at the height of the Blitz. As the plot unfolds it becomes increasingly apparent that their lives and the very outcome of the war may be altered forever. Meanwhile, back in 2060, Colin and Mr. Dunworthy are struggling to come up with a way to bring them home. Through it all, street urchins Alf and Binnie Hodbin are running around terrorizing Londoners, raising suspicions that they are really a secret weapon for the Nazis and generally providing the light-hearted comic relief that Willis, Shakespeare and other great writers have used to soften make the impact of tragic events. Their role in the story is priceless and they are quite likely the most entertaining fictional characters I've read in at least the last decade.
While this book does run a little long, it is definitely worth reading, especially if you have read and enjoyed her previous books ('Doomsday Book', 'To Say Nothing of the Dog'). If you haven't and aren't sure you want to invest some much time in these books, check out one of these two to see if you like her stuff.
Every time I sat down with this book I had to make sure that I had a good hour so I could get immersed in it, turning pages to find out more. Though the existence of time travel pegs this book as science fiction, most of the book takes place during the Blitz in 1940-41, highlighting both the events and place of London during the Blitz. As I told my sister, it's not the sort of book you can multitask with because it's not told linearly; events from 1944 and 2060 are interspersed with the main story. Polly constantly reminds Eileen - and the reader - this is time travel, so I suppose it's no surprise the order of events get complicated. Despite some repetition, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters, and would read it again in a heartbeat.
A lot of this, the second installment, was much, or rather, exactly like the last half of the first installment, in which our time-travelers, Polly, Mike, and Eileen, spend most of their time trying to think through different strategies for improving their stuck-in-the-past situation. "Different" is a bit of an overstatement, they never seem to get anywhere and they try a lot of things multiple times. The frustrating part is that they have to base most of their decisions off a set of assumptions, and even though they don't make any progress, it never seems to occur to them to reexamine those assumptions. In the first book, I was willing to overlook this because there was so much interesting information about their WWII-era daily lives, but by this point, most of the focus is on their endless conversations about various strategies and if/how/why they failed, and then they go to work and come back and resume the discussion.
I'm not sure which is more annoying -- that Mike and Polly treat Eileen like an idiot, or that she acts like one. And sure enough (I think this too vague to be a spoiler), by the end, there's a sort of "and it turns out Eileen was the smart one after all" thing going on, but it's not very convincing.
All that complaining out of the way, the story itself is a good one. I like where it ended up, and how everything comes together. The whole thing is kind of a series of platitudes, but you feel committed to it (well, I guess you'd have to be if you continued reading) and it is, at the end of the day, a mostly satisfying conclusion for the characters. There was one major bit with a WWII person and Polly that felt like it was supposed to go in one direction but maybe got dropped along the way, but OTHER than that, you did get a sense that there was a good plan in place for crafting this novel.
As an aside, one thing about whole Oxford time travel business that occurred to me during this book is to wonder why the lab isn't also crawling scientists, I guess mathematicians and physicists, who you would think would be using it as their research model. Except for the poor lab techs, everyone else is a historian. That seems irresponsible. Maybe there is a whole suite of researchers working next door to the lab, but they never come into the story.
"Beggin' your pardon, misses. I shouldn't 'ave called 'Itler a little bastard. 'E's the biggest bastard what ever lived."
I think I have an ulcer now. The suspense, the frenetic pace of the book – hurry here, get diverted, rush elsewhere, find or miss that being looked for, if found that thing leads to another search, sprint here and there, hither and yon, at top speed, with constant interruptions and rerouting and balks and blocks and detours and dead ends… Needing to be at point A, and being required to go to point B, and then there's point C, which is equidistant to B from A… and then point D gets thrown in for good measure, also equidistant. Will they make it?! People squirting off in all directions, appearing and disappearing and obstructing and getting injured and waylaid and oh lord what now without notice. So many interruptions and interceptions and all so very well-meaning, or so very necessary, and … Yikes.
But rarely has an ulcer ever been earned in so enjoyable a fashion.
These aren't "easy" books. Not only is there the cross-stitch element of time travel to take into account, but Connie Willis isn't easy on her characters. Oh, sure, the comedy can be flowing – say, Alf and Binnie up to high-larious hijinks … but then a moment later comes the reminder that these two irrepressible vivacious children are, like everyone else in England (most of Europe), constantly under a Damoclean sword, with doom hanging by the finest of horsehairs over their heads. You just never know how it's going to go – anyone could die (everyone could die), or be left behind, or be somehow discovered, at any moment – or a fellow time traveler could show up, or time could be irretrievably altered…
Connie Willis has an intensely frustrating way of cutting away to one of the side plots – and then bringing that action to a crisis point at the end of the chapter and … returning to the main story again. Argh. And I say that with the greatest respect.
On the other hand, Connie Willis is so easy to read. Her writing is as transparent as good glass – by which I mean it's so good it disappears, leaving her characters and their settings in full color and three dimensions in your mind. Nothing is predictable, everything is immediate (Connie Willis doesn't need to use the present tense to create immediacy), and the suspense can be intense. And all the while she will make you laugh –
"Oh, dear. I do hope I didn't say anything I shouldn't have. I didn't confess undying love to some girl fifty years my junior, did I? Or quote Peter Pan?"
– and make you cry –
"We live in hope that the good we do here on earth will be rewarded in heaven. We also hope to win the war. We hope that right and goodness will triumph, and that when the war is won, we shall have a better world. And we work toward that end. We buy war bonds and put out incendiaries and knit stockings---"
And pumpkin-colored scarves, Polly thought.
"---and volunteer to take in evacuated children and work in hospitals and drive ambulances" - here Alf grinned and nudged Eileen sharply in the ribs - "and man anti-aircraft guns. We join the Home Guard and the ATS and the Civil Defence, but we cannot know whether the scrap metal we collect, the letter we write to a solider, the vegetables we grow, will turn out in the end to have helped win the war or not. We act in faith.
"But the vital thing is that we act. We do not rely on hope alone, thought hope is our bulwark, our light through dark days and darker nights. We also work, and fight, and endure, and it does not matter whether the part we play is large or small. The reason that God marks the fall of the sparrow is that he knows that it is as important to the world as the bulldog or the wolf. We all, all must do 'our bit'. For it is through our deeds that the war will be won, through our kindness and devotion and courage that we make that better world for which we long."
- sometimes at the same time.
"We must trust in God's goodness," Miss Hibbard said, patting her hand.
Mrs. Wyvern patted it too. "God never sends us more than we can bear."
"Everything which happens is part of God's plan," the rector intoned.
Sir Godfrey came up to her, his hat in his hand.
If he has some appropriately cheerful Shakespeare quote, like "There's a divinity that shapes our ends," or "All will yet be well," I'll never forgive him, Polly thought.
"Viola," he said, and shook his head sadly. "'The rain it raineth every day.'"
I love you, she thought, tears stinging her eyes.
Connie Willis's writing is possibly the most human I know of. All the variegated emotions of humanity, and the heightened emotions of humanity at war: she's got them down.
She knew now how Theodore's neighbor felt. She wanted to shut herself in the cupboard under the stairs and stay there, even if it offered no protection at all. But that was impossible. She had to make Mr. Dunworthy soft-boiled eggs and tea and keep Alf from asking him how it felt to be blown up and Binnie from sharing her opinions of fairy tales, had to learn her lines, practice tap routines, rip ruffles off her costumes and sew sequins on them. And face Eileen's unquenchable optimism.
There are a lot of books out there (not enough, but quite a few) which feel like I could step into and find my way around. Connie Willis's world feels like it settles around me as I read – or listen – and when I have to put aside the book it seems strange that no one is dropping bombs on me and that I'm stuck in this time and place.
The narration helps a great deal in that, with these audiobooks. Katherine Kellgren is brilliant and I love her and will listen to anything she reads which isn't Fifty Shades of Anything.
The historical detail in these two novels is amazing. I found myself constantly going to Wikipedia to read more about WWII and the Blitz.
Some people have complained that both of these books drag on a bit, and I can see why. The characters spend all of their time worrying that they are altering history, and all of their attempts to get home fail, which ultimately means that very little actually happens in the story. But Willis does an incredible job of maintaining suspense, and the characters are likeable, if a little obsessive.
The hundreds of pages of "Blackout" only set the stage for the 640 pages of "All Clear." Connie Willis's engaging if a bit whiny characters kept me reading even though Polly's "deadline" angst got tiresome and the plot moved slowly. By the middle of the book, though, the cumulative effect was to mentally experience time folding in and over itself -- a sort of pastry dough of the universe with layer upon layer upon layer.
Many of the "reveals" can be guessed long before they occur but the ending was not only surprising but cryptic. I kept flipping back to reread parts and ferret out the clues Willis sprinkled Christie-like in the smallest details.
Agatha herself is a minor character and major influence in "All Clear." Having only recently learned she was an archaeologist as well as writer, I was happy to learn another fact about her non-authorial life thanks to Willis.
The extent of Willis's research on World War II England
shows and is incorporated without being in the least pedantic.
I hope Willis returns to the Oxford historians again, but maybe in a tighter novel.
The cover on this book, incidentally, is stunning.
Three time traveling historians from Oxford become trapped in London during the Blitz. Willis' historical detail is incredible; through her writing we know exactly what it felt like to live every evening in a bomb shelter, and to not know whether your home would still be standing when the "all clear" sounded.
In Blackout, the characters were so alike personality-wise that it was confusing. By the end of the second book they were well-defined. All three characters spend most of their time, it seems, racing from one place to another, trying to find a working "net" which will return them to 2060 and the University. This break-neck pace is wearing--but fun to read.
By the end, time had shifted so often that the reader hardly knows how old any of the characters are, or when they are! In spite of this, if you like historical fiction, don't be afraid to take on this mammoth work. It reads quickly because the action is so fast, and you do want to know if they are ever rescued!