Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Gollancz (and various others)
Publication Date: Originally July 1992.
Length: Novel (578 pages approx)
Format I read: Audiobook
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
A really wonderful in-depth story of time-travel and the very real difficulties of trying to survive in the past. Remember that old adage – “the past is a foreign country” – well if nothing else brings that home then this book will. The uncanny similarities and differences of life in the middle ages, the horrible reality of a world without modern medicine – they’re just for starters.
Because then there’s that extra layer of cleverness. In the 1990s Willis wrote this book in an imagined future of the 2050s and we can read with amusement how the comparatively recent years of the 1970s were already becoming misremembered (and fearsome because of it). But through the joys of time actually passing the additional pleasure of a strangely alien future also emerge. Willis’s vision of a future with video phones tied to landlines and almost impossibly small file-sizes seems charmingly naive now but only serves to emphasise the sheer impossibility of the historian’s (and futurist’s) task of understanding another era. It is only Kivrin, who ventures into the 14th century who can understand it, and only then through total, terrifying, assimilation. She does not simply learn about the past, she becomes part of it.
And, damn me, if it isn’t also entirely heart-wrenching.
P.S. If you’re prone to hypochondria I’m going to give you a heads-up: this is not the book for you. I am now totally paranoid about every sneeze and considering investing heavily in antibacterial gel.