This is one of the most inventive tales of time travel I've ever read. The plot is well-researched, giving an incredibly detailed history of The Plague. In addition, it addresses the sticky issue of paradox in a satisfying way.
A must read by a great author. She really studied her history for this one. I always enjoy her books, but I understand why this was a Nebula Award Winner. Dive into the 578 pages and enjoy this stunning novel. I would never part with this book, but some how I ended up with two copies.
I found this a bit darker than "To say nothing of the dog" but then again, this book is about the Plague. Written in a semi-serious tone, though, and there's an interesting parallel/contrast situation going throughout comparing the 14th century to the 21st. The impact really doesn't hit until after you finish reading. Without giving away too much plot, there are two pandemics, one the aforementioned black plague and the other a modern-day plague. It was saddening and a bit laughable that, in the modern-day scenario, you have a bunch of self-righteous bell ringers complaining about missing their concert, whereas during the Plague, the bell tolls meant something much more ominous. Anyway, this book has moments of irony, horror, humor and history. It's sci-fi "lite"!
This book was well written, had well developed characters and a really interesting premise.....but relied on one convention (the unreliability of communication) to create the entire story. I found it incredibly unbelievable that in 2060 (or so, when this story takes place) we are expected to believe that quarantining one city would cripple communications lines, and that the Department Head of a Major University could be completely out of contact (and unfindable) for upwards of three weeks. Communication hasn't been that unreliable for more than fifty years - and I would assume that in fifty more years, things would be better....not worse.
A friend loaned me this book and highly recommended it; if it weren't for that, I doubt I would've finished it. The premise is great, but the execution is poor, embarrassing even. The book is badly written, both in terms of the unfolding of the plot and the unfolding of the characters.
It took me a few chapters to realize this. At first, I was optimistic, curious about what had gone wrong in the present-day, and intrigued about the unexpected snags Kivrin hit in the 1300s. I learned some interesting facts about the 1300s, an era largely unknown to me before reading this book.
Soon, though, it became clear that the author had no intention of moving the plot along much until the last act. More than half of the 600 pages are superfluous. The book has an incoherent, thrown-together feel, with the narrative often not serving the plot or the characters.
The book switches between the 1300s and the present day. I suppose the purpose of the present-day narrative (or rather, the slightly-future narrative where time travel is possible) was to add suspense and tension, but all it did was add filler -- and pretty bad filler at that. Characters go back and forth to the hospital without accomplishing anything. Characters drift in and out of consciousness, on the brink of disclosing something important, only to become incoherent for the next hundred pages (and the next few hospital visits). Characters attempt to reach each other on the phone ad nauseum, and when they do finally make contact, we find out that they did not have any helpful information after all. And on and on it goes. The technological advances of this era are glossed over and unexplored, serving to further disengage me from the happenings in the 2050s.
The other half of the story, following our waylaid time traveler, Kivrin, is better, and I enjoyed the aspects of 14th-century life relayed in its pages (though there weren't as many historical tidbits as I would've expected), but it too suffered from pacing issues, with Kivrin asking the same questions and finding no answers until near the end. Often, it felt like we were just biding our time until the story really got going around page 400 ... And even then, the "twists" were so telegraphed that there were few surprises.
And then there were the stereotypical, paper-thin characters, the likes of whom I was shocked to find in a book so highly lauded. Many characters (particularly in the present day) had absolutely no bearing on the plot, and existed only to help fill the space, to (I suppose?) provide comic relief, to have one overblown feature, and one alone, that would be revisited again and again and again with little to no attempt to understand these characters or justify their presence (i.e. the woman who read Bible verses of doom to patients, the man who fretted over the decreasing supply of toilet paper, etc.). Character motivations were flimsy and often nonsensical, lacking nuance, lacking depth.
As far as the characters in the 1300s? They were a little better, in no small part because the setting was more interesting and the plot less stymied. These 14th-century men, women, and children, however, still acted as props to hammer home what life (and death) were like back then, or to serve the meandering narrative, everyone following a script, everyone designed to fit a certain character type to a T, everyone embodying some sort of cliche (i.e. the nagging mother-in-law, the curious, energetic little girl, the selfless but uneducated priest, etc.) Granted, these characters/cliches were more believable than their 21st-century counterparts, but depth and complexity were still lacking. If this story was designed to put a human face on historical events, it did not succeed, at least not for this reader. Some characters were drawn worse than others, it's true, but in my opinion, none of the characters broke out of their one- or two-dimensional shells to become fully fledged three-dimensional characters.
The back cover of my copy states that the author "draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit." I wish this were true. I wish this book were a window not only into a far-gone era, but into the humanity, the pain, and the hope of that far-gone era. I wish it opened my eyes and awakened my imagination and fulfilled all its potential. Alas, it was a big disappointment.
Some books have strong, well-paced plots; others specialize in rich characterization. Truly great literature excels at both. This novel, however, succeeded at neither, with its bloated plot propped up by a huge cast of thin characters. I did learn some things about 14th-century Britain, but I was left wanting here too, both in terms of quantity (amount of historical, factual information, especially for a book of this size) and quality (presentation of these facts in a vivid, immersive, and realistic way).
I'm assuming much of the five years the author spent on this book were devoted to researching the time period. However, I wish more time had been spent on telling a compelling story well. This is my first book by Connie Willis, and probably my last.