Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blackout, by Connie Willis

Ballantine Books/Spectra
February 2010
491 pp

Two things before I get to the review:

First, let me skip all the way to the very last lines of the book (don't spoilers here):

 For the riveting conclusion to Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis's All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010.
 Yes, that's correct. When you get to the ending, pumped up on adrenaline because you just have to know how things come out, there's a sucker punch waiting for you -- to find out what happens and to see if the three main characters can resolve their dilemmas, you have to wait until October. So you might wish to fight the urge to read the book now and wait until you have both volumes safely in hand so as not to have to wait. I bought this book at the airport to read on the plane, and had no idea is was a two-parter, so imagine my surprise. However, as soon as I finished this one, I immediately preordered my copy of  the second book, All Clear, due out in October. Although this is perfectly timed for me,  other people may not be so happy for the wait. Oh well...what can you do?

Second, I liked this book -- didn't love it, but I have been a huge fan of Connie Willis for years since I read Doomsday, her first Oxford time-travel novel.

The year is 2060, and at Oxford a time travel project allows history graduate students to go back to a specific time and place to further supplement their learning experience. By this time, these historians are able to have specific and essential knowledge of the period implanted for immediate use, and then off they go into the Net, which leaves them at a specific place at a specific time, and this spot becomes "the drop" through which they can return to Oxford either at the end of their time or when they need additional information or props for the period.  There's also a safety net: if something goes wrong (which it's not supposed to because of the rules of time travel), the drop serves as a portal through which a "retrieval team" can effect a rescue if necessary. As the story opens, a handful of historians are preparing to go back in time to the World War II era -- Merope (who uses the name Eileen) is studying the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, Polly is going to London during the Blitz, and Michael is off to Dover to witness the rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk. But all is not well at Oxford, it seems -- drop schedules are being changed and no one understands why, no one can get in touch with the elusive Dunworthy, the head of the program -- things are in a word, chaotic. But eventually, each student gets to their appointed place and time, but it's not long until things begin to go wrong -- most notably, with Michael.  He is not supposed to actually be at Dunkirk, but is shanghaied into going there -- and things happen that make him wonder if he has actually changed the course of history.  Each of the historians have his/her own stories, and the author alternates the action among the three.

Willis obviously spent hours upon hours upon hours researching this part of Britain's history.  In fact, she notes in her acknowledgments that one group she had to thank was

...the marvelous group of ladies at the Imperial War Museum...women, who it turned out, had been rescue workers and ambulance drivers and air-raid wardens during the Blitz, and who told me story after story that proved invaluable to the book and to my understanding of the bravery, determination, and humor of the British people as they faced down Hitler.
 She has turned those interviews, along with the rest of her incredible research, into a portrait of life in 1940s Britain that is rich in detail as well as interesting to read from an historical point of view, so much so that at times you may forget you're reading a novel about time travel. Aside from the history of it all, the narrative is often funny, lifting the reader out of the darkness of war-time Britain for a short period of time.  The characters, for the most part, are well drawn and the author is also able to build suspense throughout the novel to create an interesting mystery that keeps you reading until the end for the solution (but as I noted above, the revelations must wait until October). 

While the story is compelling and unputdownable,  Blackout does have some minor niggling distractions, such as storylines or scenes that tend to drone on when they could have been shortened (for example, in Eileen's time at the manor with two rambunctious children) with no loss to the overall story itself. There's also nearly an entire chapter in which one of the characters tours St. Paul's cathedral, which survived the Blitz due to the diligent efforts of many, which also could have been gone with no problem in terms of plot or even character development. Finally, there's the cliffhanger ending: this may be my fault, for not knowing beforehand that the book came as a two-volume set, but when you've read 491 pages, and the last words let you know that there's no resolution for a few months, that's just wrong. 

On the whole, Blackout is quite good for what it is, and is a reading experience that should be enjoyed by fans of speculative fiction, time travel, historical fiction (if you don't mind some sci-fi to go along with it), and fans of Connie Willis' previous works.  Don't expect fine literature, but it's a great book for a few hours of relaxing entertainment.


  1. Sounds like a good read. Thanks for the warning about it being a 2-parter! I've got Bellwether planned for this year, but I may switch to this one.

  2. Bellwether is really good as well. This one was fun to read but yeah...the have-to-wait-for-the-ending thing was mildly annoying.

  3. Thanks for the warning!! I don't like it when I hit an unexpected cliffhanger.


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