I am, in general, a big fan of Connie Willis. Not every book has struck me exactly right, but I do enjoy them. And this series of time travel books tend to be enjoyable, although they vary wildly, from a door-slamming farce to wrench-your-heart-out, leave-you-in-tears Black Death Romps. So I was excited to start the first of two books that won the Hugo a few years ago.
And I was not disappointed. While nowhere near as good as The Doomsday Book, Blackout is a very good entry into this series, and suitably tense at times, through leaving us entirely with the historians as their drops...fail to open. In the middle of the war. In the middle of the Blitz. Is something going on in the future? Or have they altered the timeline, causing the future to cease to be? There is a partial answer to this at the very end of the book, but by focusing on the past alone, after the first third of the book, is very effective at giving us the same kind of tension that the historians are under.
We don't know any more than they do, and that lack of knowledge is terrifying - particularly when you're supposed to have the knowledge - you're a time traveller, after all!
Three historians are surveying three different parts of the war. Eileen/Merope is watching children who have been evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. Mike is supposed to be at Dover, watching and interviewing those who are evacuated from Dunkirk, but isn't allowed to go near Dunkirk himself, as he could far too easily save a life that wasn't to be saved, or cause someone to die who should have lived. Polly is actually witnessing the Blitz, but armed with a lot of information as to where the bombs are to fall - except that not all the bombs were accurately reported, to keep the Germans from knowing just how effective their attacks were.
And then, one by one, they find their drops aren't working. They try to find each other. They wonder what has happened. And they grow ever closer to the days where what they know about the War come to a close, and they'll be just as vulnerable as those who are living through them for the first time.
Willis does a marvellous job of humanizing these types of situations in these time travelling books. She takes something, and makes it real, gives us vivid characters we care about who are in immediate and present danger. It doesn't matter that they're fictional - that sense of needing to catch your breath makes everything more immediate.
But still, this isn't quite the pulse-pounder at least one other of this series has been. But it is thoroughly enjoyable, and I look forward to All Clear.