I’m only going to write a single review for “Blackout” and “All Clear” since Connie Willis intended them to be a single novel and they are only in two volumes because of the length.
I found that I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with these books, there were many bits that I really enjoyed and found compelling but there were also persistent flaws that kept reoccurring. Towards the end of “All Clear” I found that the more irritating flaws had reduced in number so I was left with an overall positive impression of the books but I think potentially there could have been a much stronger story here.
I found the basic premise quite appealing; in the mid-21st Century time travel has been invented and is being used as a tool by historians who now have the opportunity to directly experience major historical events rather than just writing about them. Willis has previously written other stories (which I haven’t read) following historians to other historical periods but in this case the main focus is on a trio of characters experiencing various aspect of life in England in the early years of World War 2 but who find themselves unable to return back to their own time. I do wonder a bit whether reading Willis’ previous time-travel stories might have answered a few of the questions I had about the background to this. The Oxford of 2060 seems oddly anachronistic, it feels more like the background to an Inspector Morse episode rather than a futuristic society and I don’t know whether it was a deliberate plot point that England in forty-five years time will feel a lot like England forty-five years ago or if it was just lazy world-building.
Fortunately, the books don’t spend much time in the future and I found the world-building to be much more convincing when it was showing the 1940s. Although the story visits a few time periods (from Dunkirk to VE Day) it spends most of its time during the Blitz in London and it gives a very evocative portrayal of how horrific and disorienting that constant air-raids must have been, the scenes set around St Paul’s as much of the surrounding area becomes an inferno during one of the fiercest raids were particularly effective at showing how hellish that time could be. The books also do a good job of showing the population of London trying to somehow live their lives in the midst of the chaos. Willis has obviously done a huge amount of research into the time period, I think this has both good and bad points since it does help making the setting feel real but at the same time also contributes to the excessive length of the story.
The plot is also very cleverly constructed with lots of hints and clues about what is going to happen later in the story (and I’m sure there are probably more there than I noticed). A lot of the fun of reading the story was trying to piece together those clues. Willis uses a structure where each chapter follows one of the characters before switching to another character for the next chapter, usually with some sort of mini-cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. I think this does help in making the reader want to find out what happens next and I found I went through the book relatively fast, on the other hand the cliffhangers do often feel a bit manipulative and there are so many fake disasters that turn out not to be disasters that when things really do go wrong I found myself initially unsure whether to believe them or not. I think perhaps the most frustrating thing about the story was how slow the plot progression could be and how some of the plotlines got very repetitive. There are a lot of instances characters almost but not quite meeting up with each other or finding a way back to their own time, but are prevented by bad timing or bad communication or bad luck. Admittedly, much of this does become an actual plot point in the story but that doesn’t really make it any less irritating. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books where it feels a lot of trouble could be solved if the characters just sat down and had a lengthy and honest conversation with each other but they either decide not to do that or are prevented from doing that. In the first book there’s also a lot of repetition between the three main plotlines as the central characters (who haven’t yet met up) are all separately trying to figure out why they’re unable to return to 2060.
I think with some ruthless editing it would probably have been possible to cut maybe a third of the length of the story without losing anything too significant. Some of the subplots take up a lot of space without ever really going anywhere. For example, I find Bletchley Park as fascinating a topic as any other Computer Science graduate but a character’s visit to there is ultimately inconsequential and should probably have been cut.
Usually I found the supporting characters to be more interesting than the three main protagonists with an interesting and varied cast (the infamous Hodbin children were particularly memorable). Out of the three main characters I found Eileen to be the most interesting and likeable, while she might initially seem the most out-of-her-depth (as the other two protagonists seem to think) in the long run she turns out to be perhaps the most resilient and perceptive of them and she has the most interesting interactions with the other 1940s characters as well as the most character development. I also thought Mike had some interesting character development after having been fairly bland initially but Polly felt like she didn’t really change much over the course of the story. One minor irritation is that for people who are supposedly historians they don’t seem to know much history beyond the details of how to blend into the era (it feels like I shouldn’t know more about things that happened in World War 2 than they do), and their assessment of historical events sometimes seems a bit dubious.
Overall I’d have to say my reaction to the two books was a bit mixed. I did enjoy many aspects of the story and I found them compelling enough to read hundreds of pages in a day, on the other hand the story is far longer than it needs to be and it felt like the books weren’t quite as good as they had the potential to be.
Rating : 7.5 / 10