Book Review – “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis
Spoiler Warning – Meat spoils. Milk spoils. And for some people, fiction spoils if they find out details about the story before learning about it as part of the story. This is referred to as a “Spoiler”, and some people demand that reviewers or commenters warn them if a Spoiler may happen through the use of a Spoiler Warning. This is mine. Personally, if you are one of these Spoiler-phobes, what the hell are you doing perusing reviews or commentaries before you take in the entertainment? How about a little personal responsibility? How about a little common sense? While you are at it, how about you run down to Starbucks and pick me up one of those holiday hot chocolates, man, I love those things.
Summary – “The Doomsday Book” is a time travel novel set in Oxford in the 2050’s and in a little English village in the 1300’s. A young historian gets herself sent back to a time that has not been visited before due to the level of perceived danger. When she arrives she immediately falls gravely ill. She also doesn’t realize that she is not “when” she thinks she is. At the same time, back home, the sickness she is suffering from rages through Oxford and causes a quarantine. Her mentor, who did not want her to do this and is not in charge of the project, knows something went wrong. But, due to the epidemic, all of his efforts to fix the situation and help his mentee are thwarted. The story itself is split between the historian’s experiences in the 1300s and her mentor’s experiences with an epidemic in the 2050s. When I was looking for a book, I was consciously looking for what could be called a “better book”. Something more critically acclaimed than I usually read. I chose to read this book because I have heard the author mentioned as one of the best and has multiple Hugo’s and Nebulas. This book won both a Hugo and a Nebula when it came out.
The Good – I learned a few things about life in the 1300’s in this book. I learned they constructed their sentences differently, not Yoda-different, but different. I learned there are three types of bubonic plague – Pneumonic, Septicemic, and Bubonic – for those of you keep track. I learned that pinching the wicks of candles can break them. I learned that the chimney was not prevalent until the 1400s, leaving living spaces very smoky. I learned that in an epidemic, tracking the index cases’ contacts is vital to finding the origin point of the disease. Finally, I learned that if you are a bell ringer, you keep ringing to the point of passing out – it’s not just a vocation it’s a way of life. My point here is that this is one really, really researched book. She has details that make the book feel very, very real. This is also a pretty well written book. The book is slow (more on that later), and the craft put into the writing made it possible to get through the book.
The Bad – I have never read a book where so much was written and so little happened. At one point the author spent a page talking about the protagonist’s difficulties untying a ribbon from a little girl’s wrist. The ribbon was not special and untying it was not important to the plot. Still, we go a page on it. This book is chock full of details that add nothing to the story. I have not read something like this since that “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who went to the corner grocery, got some bread, thin sliced deli meat, and mayo, and made a nice sandwich a little later” book. The second issue with this book is the constant worrying. Yes, due to the circumstances, the two main characters have cause to worry. But after hearing how worried he was about her for the third time, I got it. I did not need the nest 10 tortured inner monologs about it. The two main characters have some depth, but the secondary characters are one note walk-ons who add little. One is a overbearing righteous mother, one is a functionary with a lavatory paper obsession, one is a bitter old woman angry about a stupid priest, and another is a plucky, ADHD kid who won’t let anything stand in his way. And those are the most interesting ones.
The Other – The book is well written, as I said before, but I would not call this a literary book. It does not ramble on with descriptive flourish or play word games. It would have been a welcome change.
The Final Verdict –The true test of an author’s work is whether or not you would buy another book or the next book by the author. I bought this book because I was looking to read something that should have been a better book than I read on a regular basis. This was a Hugo and Nebula award winner, from an author with an impressive collection of award hardware. I did not enjoy this book. I found it tedious, repetitive and pointless. Given the author’s reputation and longevity, I will probably read another book by her. Every author can have a weak book. But, if the next book is similar, I won’t bother to finish it. Closer to two stars than two and a half.
Explanation of Stars –
One Star – was not worth reading, and I wonder why I did and how I got through it
Two Stars – Book had significant flaws that interfered with the enjoyment of the story. I finished it but wish I could get that time back.
Three Stars – A decent book that I finished and don’t regret the time I spent. It didn’t fail on any account but it probably didn’t shine either. I might be interested in the authors next book, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to just anybody. Many first books in a series are like this.
Four Stars – This is a really good book with minor flaws that border on nitpicking, if they are really flaws at all. I eagerly look forward to the next book.
Five Stars – A four star book that really moved me emotionally, made me think in a different way, or introduced me to concepts I had never before dreamed of. A book that I am still thinking about weeks later.