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Blackout Paperback – September 14, 2010
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
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Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukasâto say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.
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I read another novel in this universe, The Doomsday Book, which was the Nebula Award winner for 1993. I liked that book considerably better than this one. But part of that isn't really fair. The first book felt new and engaging, this book did not have the advantage of being a new world.
I've got some issues with this novel. The first is that it is absolutely NOT a standalone novel. To get the story you must read the second book in the series--All Clear. I don't like that in a series. I want each book to have some closure. It's okay if it makes you want to learn more, but this book basically just stops right in the middle, as if the end was determined solely based on page count.
There are three main story lines following each of three "historians" from 2050 (I think) who go back to 1940 to observe various aspects of the English reaction to the ongoing war. The three characters all find that they cannot get back to their "drop" to return to their present day for one reason for another. Finally they all end up together in London during the Blitz trying to figure out some way to get home.
I have to say, these people are whiners. Yes, they admire the everyday bravery of the "contemps" around them. Yes, they display some of that bravery themselves -- although it's easier to be brave when you know when and where the bombs are going to land and who is going to win the war. Nevertheless, the spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about how hard their lives are and, especially, how much they want to go home. They also worry incessantly about whether they have, or even can, change history. Every move they take makes them think that they've lost the war.
Another thing is that each of them is constantly trying to hide things from the other two to spare them from some thing that they might worry about. That gives the person with the secret something else to whine about. Since they're all doing it, they're all whining about it.
The characters, Mike, Polly, and Eileen, are actively looking for a way back by finding another time traveler. In the meantime, they are also waiting for a rescue team to come get them. Sometimes they realize the temporal implications of this and sometimes they don't. While trying madly to find an historian who traveled to 1940 from their past -- say 2040 -- they also acknowledge that this would create a time paradox which they know is impossible. While waiting for the rescue team, they sometimes admit that any rescue would have to be immediate since their rescuers would literally have an infinite time to come back to rescue them in what could be the next minute in their 1940 timeframe . Sometimes they think about that, sometimes not.
Lastley, Polly has what's called a "deadline," a time when she would exist twice due to a previous historical assignment. It is unclear what happens when this deadline is reached but it's something drastic, like maybe she disappears into a puff of smoke. I know I shouldn't care, but why does this apply only to humans? Already they have broken the physical law concerning conservation of matter (or energy). The universe apparently thinks that's okay as long as the same person does not exist twice. It leads to the question of how does the universe recognize what a person is. I know, almost all time travel stories suffer from this issue, but not all of them, and most of them don't keep harping on it the way this book does.
Still, I found I had to get the second book since I got caught up enough to want to know how it resolves. I have this to say about that. The second book has all of the same issues.
I guess Hugo/Nebula awards have lost much meaning.
That time travelers can't make their scheduled rendezvous and then chase each other around in circles, losing and finding each other like a Keystone Cops movie is bad enough, but pages and pages repeatedly, neurotically and uselessly agonizing whether the sequence of events was still on track, puzzling endlessly how to contact the future, find numerous (organized) travelers, yet nobody ever made a simple backup contact plan or message drop in place ahead of time - in 20th century LONDON, REALLY?
Just plain absurd. This ain't a story about a lone traveler in the Jurassic.
Plot holes everywhere, and foolish, neurotic characters make this a tedious, annoying read.
A good editor could have chopped the thousand page two volume set into perhaps one 350 page book easily.
Blackout/All Clear has its flaws (which I will get to in a minute) but these books are also easy to recommend. Perhaps the best recommendation I can make is this: I cried at the end--more than once--which is not something I do often with books. There are some great moments of suspense and beauty in these books, and I am thankful I stuck with the lengthy and intricate story.
These books are rich with history and characters, and a patient reader is rewarded with a series of overlapping and intertwined short stories that evolve and combine into a wonderfully complex puzzle of a plot populated with vivid characters. I cared for the characters and found I was fascinated with the tales of how Londoners came together, sacrificed, helped and protected each other and often went about their lives at a time when bombs and missiles were falling by the hundreds and thousands on their city. This is one of those rare books that makes history come alive, neither sacrificing the story nor the history.
These books are historical fiction wrapped in a thin veneer of science fiction. I do not think my review will give away any spoilers, but anyone familiar with Willis' other books will know that the world she has created is one where time travel is a reality and historians traverse time to experience and observe what they previously could only ready and study. Blackout and All Clear take readers to WWII Dover, Dunkirk, Bletchley Park, St. Paul's, Trafalgar Square and elsewhere during the war, and they give a strong and immediate sense of the way the British persevered during some of the darkest and most difficult times in human history. I was thoroughly swept away and truly moved by some of the stories of sacrifice, bravery and loss. These books were literally (and not just figuratively) a page-turner for me. I had a hard time putting it down.
So, why am I not giving this a five-star review? While I found the books very rewarding, they are not without their flaws, and it was within Willis' grasp to produce something truly great and not merely very good with a little more discipline (and, frankly, more than a little bit of editing.) Some readers complain that it is difficult to keep up with the overlapping story and characters--the book leaps forward and backward within the war years and outside of them (to 1995 and 2060) and layers in many characters, and it can be difficult to keep track of it all. The best advice I can give people is to simply approach these books as if you're reading short stories and not to worry about keeping track of it all--simply enjoy each plotline on its own and, as the books progress, the relationships between seemingly unrelated people and plots converge.
For me, the biggest flaw was that Blackout/All Clear needed more than a bit of editing. Or perhaps Willis should have trusted her readers to put the pieces together more quickly than do the characters in her story.
It is giving very little away to say that central themes of this book include that the historians who go back in time worry about returning to their contemporary period and fret about the impact they may have on history--but a little bit of this sort of worry goes a long, long way. Time after time, characters torture themselves about whether their presence may have inadvertently lost the war and seek signs they’ve created “discrepancies” in the timeline (which, for all their worries and effort, is an unknowable topic that gets tiresome well before Willis’ characters let it go.) Repeatedly, the characters chase around looking for ways to return home (long after readers know--and the characters should have realized--they cannot). And even once the pieces are brought together toward the end, Willis cannot help having her characters ponder time and again how one thing led to another. I found myself having a dialog with Willis, the author, wanting to tell her, “We get it! Move on!”
I have no idea how often characters cite the proverbial "For Want of a Nail" rhyme in these books, but it is done A LOT—dozens of times, I’d guess. The repeated bludgeoning of readers with the meaning of this proverb came, for me, to represent how the author needed to stop reinforcing and returning to the same topics time and time and time again. The repetition of these themes detracts rather than enhances the wonderful narrative and characters Willis has created, and I found myself wondering why these seemingly smart characters were unable to reach obvious conclusions sooner. I am sure I am not alone in that I worked out the central problem at the core of this book 500 PAGES before the characters do, themselves.
So, these books have some flaws, Willis could have trusted readers to work out the pieces, and this very good 1100-page work could have been an amazing 800-page book with more discipline and a sharper focus on what is necessary or not. That said, I once again want to reinforce that despite some frustration and even though they sometimes tried my patience just a bit, I still found Blackout and All Clear very rewarding and affecting. If I gripe a bit about these books, it's only because they were so good and it was apparent how tantalizingly close greatness was.