REVIEW: Doomsday Book

I picked up this book after reading the discussion of it in the Historical Fiction thread. The premise is that sometime in the near future (2050 or so) time travel is possible, and most of it (all of it? not clear from the narrative) is done by academic historians to learn more about the time period they study. Some centuries are off limits, though, because of their inherent danger. One of those periods is the Middle Ages, but a young Oxford historian manages to get approval to be sent back to 1320 anyway, on the grounds that it is well before the Black Plague reaches England. Things go awry, and she ends up smack dab in the middle of the Plague, although she doesn’t know it at first, and neither do her handlers back in the present time, who are battling their own plague of sorts.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, but there were several flaws that keep me from fully endorsing it. First, the author is (to my mind) unnecessarily coy about telling the reader that Kivrin has landed in the wrong year. If a reader had somehow never heard or read a single word about the book, the big ta-da reveal might be effective, but it instead seems annoying if you know anything at all (i.e., if you’ve read even the publisher’s summary on Amazon, for example). Another problem was that much of the present-day plot revolves around the inability to communicate, complete with jammed phone lines and no one having voice mail. It’s hard to believe that in 2050 we will have solved time travel but not phone circuitry! And of course, from the vantage point of 2010 the idea of time travel being not only possible but somewhat “old hat” by 2050 seems nearly laughable. The book was written in 1993, however, so that last nitpick is not really the author’s fault.

Despite these fairly serious flaws, I am interested in reading the other books in this series. I found the characters themselves to be engaging, and I appreciated the ending, which was not the usual “rescue and happy ever after” scenario. I’d like to see how the characters process what happened to them and how they move forward.