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Blackout Paperback – September 14, 2010
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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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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.
Blackout and All Clear deal with many of the same themes as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, such as the quiet courage of ordinary people in devastating circumstances, but for me, this long novel split into two volumes lacks the emotional power of Doomsday Book and the lighthearted charm of To Say Nothing of the Dog. The trio of time-traveling historians introduced here isn't nearly as memorable as Kivrin Engle or Verity Kindle and Ned Henry, either. The most accurate adjective I can think of to describe them is "stressed," and while that's understandable given their plight, their underlying personalities don't come through strongly enough to distinguish them from one another or give me much reason to care.
Even more disappointingly, Blackout and All Clear simply feel tedious. They could have stood to lose about a hundred or so pages of the viewpoint characters' endless internal monologues, in which they run over every possible scenario that could happen, every single thing that could be going wrong, and every single thing they should have done differently, over and over and over. I see what Willis might have been going for: the plotting, pacing, and language of the novel mirror the endless, grinding uncertainty that people living through WWII England must have experienced. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for the best reading experience.
I've read several of Willis's novels and loved each one. I've never skimmed through them, grimly slogging through to get to the end, as I did with these. It's sad to find myself treating these books the same way I would some pulpy airport thriller. I did want to get to the end, I did want to find out what happens and why the events in the books played out as they did, but the journey to get there just wasn't as enjoyable or as engrossing as it should have been.
Still I give Blackout 4 stars for the great, if somewhat over detailed, picture Willis draws of how Londoners lived during the Blitz and for the groundwork it lays for All Clear which does deserve 4 stars. Willis does some interesting things with disjointed time passages at the end of All Clear that tie up all the loose ends and make the two long books worth the "time". Can't give either of them 5 stars though because those are reserved for Asimov's "End of Eternity" and Heinlein's "Time Enough for Love".