Connie Willis has been one of my favorite Science Fiction authors since I read her stellar novel, Doomsday Book. She has returned several times to the same time traveling historians, in follow up books like To Say Nothing of the Dog, and her original Hugo Award winning story from 1984 called Fire Watch. This time she returns to 2060 Oxford in a two book volume about the Blitz in England and the historians who travel there to witness it and, as with all her novels, have to deal with various difficulties and complications.
What Willis gets right are her typical strengths: her characters are fully formed and fleshed out individuals who feel “real” and whole, not caricatures, even those with limited scenes; her attention to historic details and information is nothing short of breathtaking, filling the novel with a sense of “this is what it really must have been like to have lived through the Blitz,” and pulling the reader so deep into the story that at times you truly are emotionally moved by the prose; she is able to take a story that is spread out over multiple time periods (late 1940 through 1941; early 1944 to 1945; 1995; 2060) with some characters appearing in different portions of each of those periods, break them up into chapters, and recombine them in a way that leaves you guessing exactly what is going on and how they will all work together until almost the end of the book when every end is neatly sewn and briskly tied up and you take a deep breath and realize just how amazingly hard that must be to do. Agatha Christie couldn’t have done it better.
The major weakness I found was the length and breadth of the two volume work. At times, particularly in the first book, it felt like the characters were going over and over and over again the same discussions about “why isn’t time travel working, what’s blocking us, what’s really going on in 2060?” Some chapters felt like a slog through “we’ve done this already a couple of times”, and to me at least it felt like the book could have been slimmed down to one long novel of 800 pages instead of two novels totally well over 1,000 pages. It’s a slight criticism, though, given the overall quality of the work (for which she won yet another of her many Hugo awards).
On the Jeffery Rating Scale, which runs from 1 for “Steaming Piles of Bovine Colonic Extrusions” to 10 for “Fucking Ambrosia”, I’d give the entire two book volume a 9 for “One of the Best Thanskgiving Meals You’ve Ever Eaten”, only because I felt at times I was skimming over sections of repetitive dialogue and angst to get to the “good stuff.” I highly recommend them, though. If you like science fiction and time travel, these are the books for you. But start with Fire Watch and Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog before you do this one, they all tie together in a magnificent way.