Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?

and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

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Beacon 23

Opening line: ‘They don’t prepare you for the little noises.’

Howey - Beacon 23 cover

After being shipped home with a war injury and decorated as a hero, the unnamed narrator is reassigned to Beacon 23, where he can have some R&R in the vast loneliness of deep space. The beacons serve as lighthouses for interstellar travel, warning ships of asteroid belts and other obstacles that a ship travelling faster than light would not want to run into. Most of the time it is quiet on the edge of space — except for when it’s not. And, as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Beacon malfunctions, bounty hunters, hackers and pirates, and alien enemies — the beacon keeper faces all of these and more on his own. He thought that Beacon 23 was as far away from the war as he could get. He was wrong.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey is an introspective novel as the narrator examines his own psyche in the solitude and isolation of deep space. He lives alone on the beacon and communication takes three months to reach him. His only visitors are the occasional ships bringing supplies; most of the time, his patch of space is empty, as it should be. The whole point of the beacon is to keep ships away from his asteroid belt.

The novel was originally serialized, and I could tell. The beginning of each section includes a brief recap of the previous chapters that felt out of place when reading the novel as a whole, but which would fit weekly installments. Each section covers a different episode in the narrator’s time on the beacon: a malfunction, unexpected visitors, repairs, a rescue, more unexpected visitors. The narrator’s monologue is simultaneously honest, funny, and poignant. The events that led to his becoming a beacon keeper are teased out bit by bit throughout the novel as the narrator shies away from them, distrusts his own mind, and eventually confronts his memories face to face. This is not only an entertaining and funny novel about a quirky lighthouse-keeper, but also an honest study of a mind with PTSD. This is novel worth reading.

Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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Ninth City Burning

Opening line: ‘We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the sirens start, and the first thing I feel is relief, even though I know that’s totally wrong, totally not how I should feel.’

Black - Ninth City Burning coverJax is a twelve-year-old fontanus who has been raised in the military academy to defend Earth in a war that has lasted for centuries. Also at the academy are Vinneas, Imway, and Kizabel, older cadets about to become officers. Outside the Ninth City are the settlements; and outside those, the empty wildlands filled with tribes unaffiliated with the Principates and the nomadic traders who travel between settlements, belonging to neither the Principates nor the tribes of the lands through which they travel. Naomi and Rae, scouts of their caravan, cross paths with Torro of Granite Shore settlement. The young fontani, the artificer, the commander, the equite, the gunslinger, and the infantry soldier each have a role to play in the battle to defend Earth.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is a difficult book to summarize without giving any spoilers. The structure of this debut novel was ambitious: seven perspective characters, each linked in some way to the other characters. When I saw from the description of the novel that it was a group of unlikely allies that would save the world, I expected that once the characters were assembled they would work together as a team to pull off some harum-scarum plan* that they had concocted, as is usually the case (and feels a lot like RPG campaigns). But I was wrong, and I love it when a sci-fi novel does something unexpected.

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Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.


This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.

* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.


Prodigy_Marie_Lu_BookThis isn’t going to be a real book review.

That’s because Prodigy by Marie Lu is the sequel to Legend (which I reviewed last month), and though it is so good I want to tell you all about it, I don’t want to give *any* spoilers. So I am not even going to give you the first line.

The second instalment in most trilogies tends to fall flat. I don’t need to list examples because this is a known fact. Even the second book in my beloved Hunger Games trilogy feels like ‘filler’. It would have been much more exciting if what happened in the third novel happened in the second, and then we had more happening after…

Which is what Prodigy does. Prodigy ends where most trilogies end, and I am so so excited for what is going to happen in the third book. I really have no idea what is going to happen next.

Prodigy served as my incentive and reward to finish revising two chapters. I sat down and actually read it in two days, sitting outside in the garden on a rare warmish sunny day. As soon as I finished it I resolved to make the third book the reward for revising the next chapter — alas, without knowing that the third book isn’t even published yet. Champion is due out in 2014. It’s going to be a long wait. instead, Champion will probably be my reward for turning in the corrections to my thesis.

In the meantime, read Legend and Prodigy. You won’t regret it.

EDIT: I just saw that lists the release date for CHAMPION as 5 November 2013. Hip hip, huzzah!


Opening line: ‘My mother thinks I’m dead.’

legend_uk_ausFloods, earthquakes, and recurrences of plague have ravaged North America. Two countries – The Republic and the Colonies – are perpetually at war. In the flooded capital of the Republic, a prodigy trains in the military, destined for a glittering career. June is put into the field early when the Republic’s most-wanted criminal breaks into a highly guarded medical facility and kills her brother during his escape. It is her job to find him. For the first time June goes into the poor districts of Los Angeles, on the hunt for the enemy of the Republic: the boy named Day. But what happens when she finds him is enough to shake her trust in the Republic, and in everything she has ever known…

Legend by Marie Lu is a new, young-adult science fiction dystopia. I had bought it last year, having found it while looking for books to fill the YA dystopian hole left in my life after finishing The Hunger Games and Chaos Walking triologies. But then I delayed reading it, skeptical, because I knew it was going to be a gamble and sometimes I’m not the gambling type. I’d bought quite a few books last year to replenish my science-fiction collection, and so far the new fiction I had tried had been duds. I was hesitant to try something new.

Which was silly of me, of course, because once I began reading Legend I was hooked. Long-time readers of this blog will know that my favourite sub-genre of science-fiction is dystopian fiction. This means that I was both inclined to like Legend but also hold it to a high standard. If this is my favourite type of book, I don’t just want it to be good, I want it to be excellent. Fortunately, Legend stood up to those expectations. I took it with me to the doctor’s office and read it while waiting at the pharmacy to pick up my medicine. I had two chapters left. It was so good that once I was given my prescription, I sat right back down and finished reading it in the pharmacy!

I am eager to read the next instalment, but am saving it as a reward until I finish the next section of my thesis. In the meantime, Legend has made me excited to read again, so I am happily skipping along to reading other books.

A Wrinkle in Time

Opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”wrinkleintime

Meg, the daughter of two brilliant scientists, can’t seem to get anything right. Her twin brothers are normal and popular in school and her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is a prodigy and a genius. Not only that, her father has been missing for months. But when a horrible storm blows in a most unexpected visitor, Meg, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin, find themselves on a mission to save Meg’s father and maybe even the universe itself.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is a much-loved science-fiction novel for many people, myself included. When I was an adolescent I read pretty much any of L’Engle’s fiction I could get my hands on and A Wrinkle in Time was always one of my favourites. This time around, however, I was struck by how I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy: both feature a Judeo-Christian battle between the forces of Good and Evil on a cosmic scale — the very stars themselves are involved in the battle.

As an older reader this time, and more academic in my reading habits, I also noticed that the novel was published in 1967, which makes the novel’s message of individuality vs. “sameness” more poignant when one places the novel in the context of the Cold War. Could the dark planet of Comazotz be read as a planet “fallen” to Communism? A curious new way for me to consider a favourite book for many Americans, including myself!

But I much enjoyed rereading this novel, against experiencing the delights of the tesseract, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit, and Aunt Beast. I’m only disappointed I didn’t pack A Wind in the Door to read next!

Among Others

Opening line: ‘The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.’

Morwenna ran away from home, age 15, to get away from her half-mad mother whose magic caused a car accident that left Mor crippled and killed her twin sister. She left everything behind: her home in Wales, her books, her extended family, and the fairies. Taken in by her father and very English aunts and sent off to a posh boarding school, Mor tries to make sense of her new life, drawing on everything she has learned from reading science-fiction and fantasy.

I’m not sure how to catergorise Among Others by Jo Walton. It won the Hugo award for Best Novel this year (and rightly so!), and the novel is infused with science fiction. However, the presence of fairies and the workings of magic very much make this a fantasy novel, though set in a real Wales and a real England in the 1970s. Mor is an avid reader, reading at least eight books a week, making use of the school library, public library, her father’s library, and both used and new bookstores. The novel is told through her journal, in which she writes about books, school, and her old and new life. It is difficult to give an adequate summary — nonetheless, I loved reading it. If you love science fiction or fantasy, you must read this book. Even if you don’t, if you love reading you will still like this book (I hope), because it is a book about a lover of books as much as anything else.

If Mor were a real person, I’d love to meet her. I think we’d make very good friends.


Opening line: ‘Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers.’

Driven by rumours of gold in the Klondike, prospectors stream to the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Seattle on their way north. Russian prospectors commission the inventor and scientist to build for them a great drilling machine. But on its first run, Leviticus Blue’s Boneshaker machine destroys most of downtown Seattle and releases a subterranean gas that turns all who breathe it into the living dead. The city is quarantined, surrounded by a great wall that keeps the Blight and the undead inside, and the living out. Blue’s widow and son escape, living a hard life on the Outskirts. When he is a teenager, Ezekiel resolves to clear his father’s name on a quest that takes him into the heart of Blight-stricken Seattle. His mother goes after him; once inside, both Briar and Ezekiel find that there is more in Seattle than the Blight gas and its victims…

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is a steampunk alternate history science-fiction novel about zombies. It is the second steampunk novel I have attempted to read (the first being Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia, which I chose not to finish for writing style reasons). I’m not entirely convinced that steampunk works well in the written form — for visual modes of storytelling it’s a lot of fun, but, for me at least, it was less so in a book. Even so, if you want a light-hearted read about zombies, pirates, historical conceits, then this would be a good book for you.

Has anyone read other steampunk fiction? What would you recommend?