Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

doomsday book

4 out 5 stars

Contains spoilers!

This is a classic Science Fiction novel about time travel, which makes it a cool blend of 21st century sensibilities and 14th century history. Time travel has been invented and historians have taken to using it to further their research. Kivrin is a 17-year-old historian with a passion for Medieval times. She manages to get herself sent back to 1320, 24 years before the plague hits England, but when people start getting sick, she has to wonder if she got sent to the wrong time. Back in Oxford in the 2050’s, people are also getting sick, but it should be impossible for bacteria and viruses to pass through the time travel net.

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was watching the differences in how illness was treated in the different time periods. The “modern” (2050’s) response is very similar to present day, with a couple of better medicines: quarantine, hydration, medicine. In the 1300’s, religious rites seemed to have taken precedent over sanitation, so bodies were handled more than would be advisable, and prayer was considered an appropriate treatment. The book deals with how little they had to work with back then, and Kivrin’s frustration at knowing people could be saved with better technology was heartbreaking. Watching her try to translate modern notions like “don’t touch the corpse’s fluid’s” and “disease transmission” into something that could be understood at the time was a neat mental exercise, as was figuring out how to treat something using the technology available (sterilizing knives using fire, using alcohol because it is the best available antiseptic, trying to figure out the plant that is closest to advil, etc.).

The historical fiction parts of the book were done extremely well (though I would not know how accurate) and felt very realistic. The book concentrates a lot on the religious aspect of medieval life, as well as day-to-day functioning and marriage.

Willis does not soften the blow when it comes to the plague. Some of the descriptions are quite disgusting and characters do die, both in the past and future. How to drain pus and blood filled plague boils is described in detail, as are the other symptoms. It had me quickly going onto Wikipedia to check how treatable it is today (good news, pretty darn treatable!).

The characters in both time periods are well-rounded and believable. No one is perfect, and no one is purely evil. Some characters are as annoying as hell, but still are people you can imagine meeting.

I really enjoyed both the science fiction and historical fiction aspects of this novel. It gets emotionally intense at the end, but is a good read for fans of both genres.

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