Monday, September 13, 2010

Review: Blackout

This is one of the best books I've read in ages. But then, Connie Willis's books always are.

Continuing in the time-traveling world of Doomsday and To Say Nothing of the Dog, the Oxford historians of 2060 are going to World War II. Polly is in the London Blitz in 1940, working in an Oxford Street department store. Eileen is a maid in Warwickshire, helping take care of troublesome evacuees. Michael is on his way to Dover to interview the survivors of Dunkirk. The prevailing theory of time travel is that historians cannot affect history, that they are always prevented from going to major historical divergence points, but when Michael makes it to such a divergence point he begins to question that theory. And when the "drops" that are supposed to take them home to 2060 stop working, and they're all stuck sheltering from air raids in the London Underground, things begin to spiral out of control.

I learned more about World War II reading this novel than I ever did in school. Not only about major events, Dunkirk or when and why the Blitz started, but about smaller things, like how Londoners dealt with the bombing and where they took shelter, and the ways in which life went on. I learned from Blackout that when Buckingham Palace was bombed, the Queen said "Now I can look the East End in the face," because it had received the brunt of the bombing. This is (as far as one can tell) a true story. Enormous amounts of research must go into books like this, and here it is woven in extremely well. And it is not only facts like this that are transmitted, but the whole mood of the war. After reading large chunks of the book, I found myself feeling kind of paranoid, like I was waiting for a bomb to hit. Blackout sweeps you up and dumps you into its setting. Like the historians visiting World War II, you know Britain wins, but Connie Willis has enough skill to make both you and the historians doubt that.

The book jumps around in time a lot, especially in 1944 and different parts of 1940, but it never gets confusing. The date is always well labelled, and you soon come to associate each place/time with the relevant character. This also gives you a very good idea of the shape of the war. The book leaves plenty more to learn about World War II, but it gives you an incredibly good introduction and tells an incredibly good story.

The second part of the story comes out October 19th, and I'm so impatient I'm rather contemplating ordering it. I can't remember the last time I bought a new hardcover, so this says a lot.

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