Doomsday Book. Connie Willis. 1992. Random House. 592 pages. [Source: Book I Bought]
Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.
"Am I too late?" he said, yanking them off and squinting at Mary.
"Shut the door," she said. "I can't hear you over the sound of those ghastly carols."
Dunworthy closed the door, but it didn't completely shut out the sound of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" wafting in from the quad. "Am I too late?" he said again.
I first read and reviewed Doomsday Book in October 2010. I reread it in December of 2011. Yes, this is my third time to read Connie Willis' award-winning novel, Doomsday Book. (It won the Hugo and Nebula!) Quite simply Doomsday Book is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite books. It combines my love of history (the measly middle ages!) and my love of science fiction (time travel!!!). It is set--in the future and the past--during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season.
Kivrin has a dream. She'll be the first time traveler historian to go to the fourteenth century. If all goes well, and why wouldn't it boasts Gilchrist, then she'll spend two or three weeks in 1320 before returning. But Mr. Dunworthy (and subsequently Badri, the tech guy) aren't as confident that things will go smoothly. Dunworthy is sure that something will go wrong. Even if something doesn't go wrong with the time travel aspect (she lands in the right time, the right place), he's worried that something will happen to her in the past (she'll get beaten up, she'll get raped, she'll be mistaken for a witch, she'll get sick, she'll die).
From the start, there is something wrong with the drop. It starts with the technician, Badri, becoming ill. Soon the whole area is quarantined. Cases start coming in--and soon medical staff are overwhelmed. What is this disease--this illness? How is it spread? Where did it come from? Is it fatal? Is there a cure? Did he have a chance to pass this on to Kivrin before she went through the Net? What was Badri trying to communicate to Dunworthy at the last minute?
Willis does a great job building the past--the fourteenth century--and the "present" which is a time-traveling future. (The story alternates between past and present.) She blends mystery, science fiction, and historical fiction--and blends them well! Readers meet dozens of characters in both centuries as this mystery unfolds. And while it is serious--dramatic--and emotional--people will die--it's not without its lighter moments of wit. There are personalities. The characters are oh-so-human.
"I've just thought who you remind me of," Mary said, setting down her plate and a napkin. "William Gaddson's mother."
That was a truly unfair remark. William Gaddson was one of his first-year students. His mother had been up six times this term, the first time to bring William a pair of earmuffs. (23)
"Your tech seems to have done a passable job," Gilchrist said, turning to Dunworthy. "Medieval would like to arrange to borrow him on our next drop. We'll be sending Ms. Engle to 1355 to observe the effects of the Black Death. Contemporary accounts are completely unreliable, particularly in the area of mortality rates. The accepted figure of fifty million deaths is clearly inaccurate, and estimates that it killed one third to one half of Europe are obvious exaggerations. I'm eager to have Ms. Engle make trained observations."
"Aren't you being rather premature?" Dunworthy said. "Perhaps you should wait to see if Kivrin manages to survive this drop or at the very least gets through to 1320 safely."
Gilchrist's face took on its pinched look. "It strikes me as somewhat unjust that you constantly assume Medieval is incapable of carrying out a successful drop," he said. "I assure you we have carefully thought out its every aspect. The method of Kivrin's arrival has been researched in every detail. Probability puts the frequency of travelers on the Oxford-Bath road as one every 1.6 hours, and it indicates a 92 percent chance of her story of an assault being believed, due to the frequency of such assaults. A wayfarer in Oxfordshire had a 42.5 percent chance of being robbed in winter, 58.6 percent in summer. That's an average of course. The chances were greatly increased in parts of Otmoor and the Wychwood and on the smaller roads."
Dunworthy wondered how on earth Probability had arrived at those figures. The Domesday Book didn't list thieves, with the possible exception of the king's census takers, who sometimes took more than the census, and the cutthroats of the time surely hadn't kept records of whom they had robbed and murdered, the locations marked neatly on a map. Proofs of deaths away from home had been entirely de facto: the person had failed to come back. And how many bodies had lain in the woods, undiscovered and unmarked by anyone? (29)
"Mr. Dunworthy, I've been looking for you everywhere," Finch said. "The most dreadful thing's happened."
"What is it?" Dunworthy said. He glanced at his digital. It was ten o'clock. Too early for someone to have come down with the virus if the incubation period was twelve hours. "Is someone ill?"
"No sir. It's worse than that. It's Mrs. Gaddson. She's in Oxford. She got through the quarantine perimeter somehow."
"I know. The last train. She made them hold the doors."
"Yes, well, she called from hospital. She insists on staying at Balliol..."
"Tell her we haven't any room. Tell her the dormitories are being sterilized."
"I did, sir, but she said in that case she would room with William. I don't like to do that to him, sir."
"No," Dunworthy said. "There are some things one shouldn't have to endure, even in an epidemic." (117)
"I thought there'd be more going on," Colin said, sounding disappointed. "Sirens and all that."
"And dead-carts going through the streets, calling 'Bring out your dead'?" Dunworthy said. "You should have gone with Kivrin. Quarantines in the Middle Ages were far more exciting than this one's likely to be...(191)
19 December 1320 (Old Style). I'm feeling better. I can go three or four careful breaths at a time without coughing, and I was actually hungry this morning, though not for the greasy porridge Maisry brought me. I would kill for a plate of bacon and eggs. And a bath. I am absolutely filthy. Nothing's been washed since I got here except my forehead, and the last two days Lady Imeyne has glued poultices made of strips of linen covered with a disgusting-smelling paste to my chest. Between that, the intermittent sweats that I'm still having, and the bed (which hasn't been changed since the 1200s), I positively reek, and my hair, short as it is, is crawling. I'm the cleanest person here. (200)
Finch went to the door and then turned back. "About Mrs. Gaddson, sir. She's behaving dreadfully, criticizing the college and demanding that she be moved in with her son. She's completely undermining morale."© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
"I'll say," Colin said dumping the muffins on the table. "The Gallstone told me hot breads were bad for my immune system."
"Isn't there some sort of volunteer work she could do at Infirmary or something?" Finch asked. "To keep her out of college?"
"We can hardly inflict her on poor helpless flu victims. It might kill them. What about asking the vicar? He was looking for volunteers to run errands."
"The vicar?" Colin said. "Have a heart, Mr. Dunworthy. I'm working for the vicar."
"The priest from Holy Re-Formed then," Dunworthy said. "He's fond of reciting the Mass in Time of Pestilence for morale. They should get along swimmingly. (264)