I found out about this book when GoodReads recommended it after I added To Say Nothing of the Dog. I hadn’t realized it was part of a series. Doomsday Book is the first book in Connie Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series, which is about historians at a near-future version of Oxford University who use time travel as part of their research. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 1992.
This novel is a drama with some moments of comic relief, while To Say Nothing of the Dog is a comedy with some dramatic moments. Kivrin, an Oxford student studying medieval history, is well prepared to visit the fourteenth century: “She had learned Middle English and Church Latin and Anglo-Saxon. She had memorized the Latin masses and taught herself how to embroider and milk a cow. She had come up with an identity and a rationale for being alone on the road between Oxford and Bath, and she had the interpreter and augmented stem cells and no appendix.”
Kivrin is supposed to be sent to the year 1320 — but something goes wrong. She ends up in 1348 instead, shortly before Christmas…. which happens to be right before the Black Death arrives in England. Back in modern times, a dangerous strain of flu hits Oxford University. As the faculty tries to figure out what went wrong with Kivrin’s assignment and how to rescue her, they must address a crisis in their own time as well.
The only real complaint I have is about the modern-day section. This was written in 1992, so I can’t really blame Willis for not predicting that there would be cell phones in her near-future setting, but there were definitely answering machines in major institutions in 1992, and there aren’t any here. It’s hard to ignore because much of the plot revolves around telephone communication. But that’s a minor thing, and it’s an excellent book otherwise.
“Mr Dunworthy had told her it wouldn’t be anything like she imagined, and he was right, of course. But not about this mass. She had imagined it just like this, the stone floor and the murmured Kyrie, the smells of incense and tallow and cold.”
“They’ve all died, she thought, and couldn’t make herself believe it. They’ve all been dead over seven hundred years.”
“Are these the last days, the end of the world that God’s apostles have foretold?”
Yes, Kivrin thought. “No,” she said. “No. It’s only a bad time. A terrible time, but not everyone will die. And there will be wonderful times after this. The Renaissance and class reforms and music. Wonderful times. There will be new medicines, and people won’t have to die from this or smallpox or pneumonia. And everyone will have enough to eat, and their houses will be warm even in the winter.” She thought of Oxford, decorated for Christmas, the streets and shops lit. “There will be lights everywhere, and bells that you don’t have to ring.”
“I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.”
“Most of it was terrible,” she said softly, “but there were some wonderful things.”