really put me through the wringer. I woke up a couple of nights ago, worrying about the characters. They've popped into my head frequently the last few days. And I was in tears when I read the ending yesterday.
I think this is by far the best Connie Willis book I've read - and I've mostly enjoyed her other works. Everything is working on all cylinders in this book - the writing is superb, the juxtaposition of the two time periods masterful, the characters engaging, the story heartbreaking.
Against the better judgement of one of the historians (read: time travelers) at Oxford, Medieval History is sending someone back in time. Kivrin, Dunworthy's brightest student, is bound and determined to go, and enlists his help despite his misgivings about the project. And go she does, sent back to England not long before the Black Death arrives. Or is the timing off?
As Kivrin negotiates an illness of her own and the complexities of medieval life, all is not well in the small manor where she finds herself. Unsure where the drop that brought her through is, she is unsure if she'll ever make it back. And then it gets worse.
At the same time, an outbreak of a new strain of the flu in Oxford puts the city under quarantine, and sparks panic and recrimination. The mirroring of plague in England with an epidemic in modern times is chilling and well done.
But the real strength here is the characters. Headstrong Kivrin, protective Dunworthy, intrepid Colin (11-year-old who finds himself in the middle of the power struggle in the modern period to save Kivrin.) And in the medieval period, the characters sparkle, both familiar and foreign. And as they start one by one to die from the plague, it is gutwrenching. Willis captures so well the desperation of watching everyone around you die, and being able to do so little.
Along the way, she challenges the idea of how much we know about the past, and while her medieval setting may or may not be accurate, it is convincing. I loved it for putting a human face on the past, on seeing them as people, not entirely like ourselves, but not entirely foreign either. I loved it for juxtaposing the historians Kivrin leaves behind who prattle about numbers and ignore what those numbers mean with the people she encounters, who are not great, are not important in the grand scheme of things, but who nonetheless, matter.
Crossposted at Smorgasbook