Wednesday, 30 January 2013

book review; blackout & all clear by connie willis

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis
Genre: Historical, Sci-fi
Rating: 8/10
Goodreads 1 & 2
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill's next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London's Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone's schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas--to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

Before we start: This is a review for both Blackout and All Clear as they tell one story - I can't see any reason for them to have been split in to two books other than the logistics of length!

This is a really hard review to write because there's a pretty big disconnect between my head and my heart as to how good these books are! It's a testament to how much I respect them that I'm going to front-load this review with the criticisms so that, provided you read to the end, your lasting impression is positive!

I have a fair few minor criticisms but three big ones. Firstly, these books could do with some serious editing - you could easily do away with a couple of hundred pages by getting rid of extraneous plot and by merging some chapters together. Particularly in the middle (i.e. the last 100 pages of Blackout and the first hundred or so pages of All Clear) certain conversations about retrieval teams and drop sites were really repetitive. Similarly, I appreciate the need for plot twists and false leads there were just too many - the Bletchley Park side-plot in particular served little purpose other than fattening up Mike's story.

Secondly (and arguably more problematically) I have to agree with Elizabeth Wein's assessment that there is a lack of any real sense of home. The whole story is about these young historians trying to get back to their home in the future but that future is barely mentioned let alone described. Having lived in Oxford it struck me that the Oxford of 2060 presented here could actually be Oxford in 1940 - the descriptions are all of the old colleges, the Bodleian (which isn't even a single building!) and of crazy cyclists. There was never enough sense of difference - there's supposed to be 120years difference in time yet the historians seem to have little trouble adjusting to historical mannerisms and behaviours, the only adjustment difficulties presented are about accents and driving old cars! Also, it struck me as odd that the historians are presumably in their early twenties having just finished undergraduate degrees but not once do they mention their parents! The only people of the future they seemed to be concerned about are Colin and Mr Dunworthy.

Finally, as a historian myself, it really irked me that the actual purpose for them being there (i.e. studying history!) was never really addressed! At no point did anyone take any notes or refer to history books, there was no mention of methodology (whether there purpose was to experience or observe) or specific questions (were they trying to fill in gaps in the historical record or add more detail to existing narratives?) Such questions were never going to be a core plot point but it's huge oversight to completely dismiss their purpose in being in the past in the first place.

In spite of all of these problems though I have to say that I really really enjoyed this story - I can't believe that I've never come across time-travelling historian fiction before because I pretty much love everything about the concept and its potential narratives! (My kingdom for similar stories about Queen Victoria and Suffragettes and inter-war Britain!) The short chapters and changing POVs meant that my interest level rarely dipped (and even when it dropped in the middle of chapters the end of chapter cliff-hangers were enough to keep me reading). One of the highest praises I can give is that the books are both long (together they total about 1400 pages) yet I read them both in just over a week which is really good going for me! There were enough 'events' to keep the plot moving and the books were crammed full of period detail (though sometimes they could be a little superficial). There was a real sense of tension throughout as I kept feeling one-step ahead of the characters only to have that pulled out from underneath me!

Like I said at Goodreads, I'm not sure that this story would help to convert anyone to WW2 fiction who wasn't already a fan of the genre. It's also worth saying that although the time travel element technically affords it's classification as sci-fi that aspect plays a very small role here. However to those already enamoured with WW2/historical fiction and who want a really engrossing story (as opposed to in-depth character development - this is no Code Name Verity) I can't recommend these enough!

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