I picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…
When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out…
This book, indeed, deserves to be part of the SF Masterworks series – from the moment I opened the first page I knew I was in the hands of a great writer at the top of her game. Willis sets the scene in Oxford’s near future with deft dexterity, her characters crackle with humanity and there is a bone-dry humour running through the whole story that helps to make the grim adventure Kivrin endures bearable.
Mr Dunsworthy – who opposed the whole hare-brained notion of Kivrin going back to this particular time, yet somehow found himself caught up in helping her – is an outstanding character. The book is largely in his and Kivrin’s viewpoint and as the situation in both timelines slides away into chaos, it is these two main characters on whom the whole story arc rests. Willis lays bare the internecine struggles within the famous University with a sense of gentleness that is refreshing in a genre which often exposes human frailty with ruthless savagery. There are a couple of characters who resort to petty rule-hugging in order to protect themselves, but most of the people depicted step up and do their best in increasingly awful circumstances.
Be warned though – Willis can lull you into a false sense of security. While the writing style can seem gentle, she is unflinching in her depiction of one of the worst tragedies in human history. Part of the ironic humour is the academic studies – with often ludicrous pontificating by esteemed members of the History Faculty – set against the terrible reality that confronts Kivrin. Willis manages to make the medieval family that takes Kivrin in, entirely plausible – despite her initial struggles with the translating device that doesn’t work as planned – and we get to know them well, from the curious and bright five year old Agnes right through to the rigidly proper mother-in-law from Hell… And if anyone is in any doubt that this is the best Time to have been born, especially for a woman, then read the account of a small village on the outskirts of Oxford struggling to survive a harsh winter. Personally, I snuggled under the covers of my electrically heated bed and offered up silent thanks.
I have a soft spot for time travelling books – when done well, as in Kage Baker’s Company novels, they take a lot of beating. This offering from Connie Willis is right up there with the best of them and if you come across a copy, pick it up. Better still, give yourself a treat and actively hunt down this book – you won’t regret it.