I’ve been writing a few angryposts tearing apart recs I didn’t like and I feel kind of bad, so you’ll get in exchange two authors recced to me that have quickly become two of my favorite writers of all-time. Today, in part one of a two-part SQUEE series, Connie Willis! She is a true master.
Connie Willis’ writing is the kind of writing that makes you forget you’re reading. It’s so natural, so fluid, and so evocative that you might as well be living it. If someone told me that actually, her books were all nonfiction, I would believe them, because it feels like it all happened, and more importantly, it feels like it’s happening right then as you read it. This is fortunate, as much of her work is a genre mishmash of sci-fi and historical fiction, so the sense of realness is critical to immersion.
Willis’ work is character-driven drama that’s generally light on intrigue and action and heavy on emotional investment, and I’ve seen a few reviewers call her books slow because of that, but that’s
stupid and wrong judging them by a criteria they’re not aiming for. If you need tons of battles and people screaming and such to be invested in books, you probably will find her stuff sloggy, but that’s your (totally valid I GUESS) preferences, not a flaw of the work. I personally can’t put her books down. I’ve on multiple occasions stayed up far past my toddlerlike bedtime to find out what happens to everyone.
For me personally, Willis’ hallmark has been her ability to make me cry like a fucking baby. I’ve sniffled (and, okay, sobbed) my way through basically all her books. Granted, as you all likely know now, I am a huge media crier. I carefully stifle all my feelings 24/7 only to have them all come out at once as I like, play video games, which is obviously the most healthy way to manage stress. We know this. So, to introduce a modicum of impartiality to all this, I’ve rated each of the books below on the Act Sob Scale, from 1 to 10 😭s. Enjoy my misery!
Anyway, here are the Willis books I’ve read, in the order I’ve read them:
Doomsday Book (😭😭😭😭😭)
Doomsday Book, which gets its ominous title from the medieval Domesday Book, is the first full-length novel in Willis’ time-travelling historian universe. In the near future, humanity discovers the secret of time-travel, only to find out that the time-network doesn’t allow any changes to be made to itself, and will not allow people to get near historical events they might change. As a result, after the novelty wears off, it’s really only good for historians and other researchers. All the books in the series are based out of the Oxford University time-travel history department, and while they all stand alone, there are faculty members that are recurring characters so I’d def read them in order. Doomsday Book follows a student who goes back to study the middle ages, only to find that she’s been inadvertently sent to the advent of the Black Death. She has to survive as the Oxford team scrambles to find where in history she is and figure out how to get her back, but there are… complications.
DB is different from later installments in that it apparently wasn’t quite as well-researched. My copy actually came with a forward from Willis saying it wasn’t at all up to her current standards and she hoped people could still enjoy it for what it was. For my part, I didn’t notice anything immersion-breaking, but I’m also not up on my 14th-century English history, so that doesn’t mean much.
To Say Nothing of the Dog (😭)
To Say Nothing of the Dog is different from everything else on this list in that it’s actually a comedy. It’s somewhere between a comedy of manners and errors, dancing giddily along errors for the historians in the present and manners for the parts that take place in the past (though naturally the ending still hits you in the feels). Despite being very different, tonally, from Willis’ other work, this is IMO a better indicator of what to expect from Willis than Doomsday Book. It’s a character-driven commentary on human nature chock full of literary allusions, beloved animals, mystery, and hope.
Dog follows an exhausted Oxford scientist as he attempts to trace the history of the bishop’s bird stump to assist in a historical recreation. The recreation is being funded by a demanding Lady who has been sending historians all over the place and time and has left the school and the staff in chaos. In the midst of the chaos, one of the historians brings a cat forward from the past, potentially creating a time incongruity that could destroy the future.
Blackout/All Clear (😭😭😭😭😭😭😭)
I’ve seen a few reviewers that have called Blackout/All Clear Willis’ opus, and yeah, that sounds right. It’s honestly a masterpiece. I can’t imagine how she could return to the Oxford Historians universe after this, because where else even can you go (but, to be clear, I hope she does). This is one of those thing that after I read it, I couldn’t read anything else for weeks because I still wanted to think about it. I still think about it a lot. One line at the end really caught me:
To do something for someone or something you loved — England or Shakespeare or a dog or the Hodbins or history –wasn’t a sacrifice at all. Even if it cost you your freedom, your life, your youth.
This is just… super relevant to my life.
This is one story in two books about a team of three historians who go back to the London Blitz and get trapped there. It’s an emotional, loving portrait of wartime courage on the home front, of the relationships between people, and how even the smallest actions can have phenomenal consequences. It’s also very much about Agatha Christie.
It’s one of those books that hit me so hard it’s difficult to review it in any meaningful way. I read a lot of reviews complaining that it was long and slow, but that misses the point so badly. I found it to be one of those books where every detail matters, every person is an individual, every death a tragedy… which was the point. The point was that the mundanity of life as the Blitz was happening meant so much.
I found myself spending hours Wiki-ing around for info on the Blitz. I learned more about WWII from this book and the ancillary research it drove me to than from any schooling. The stuff people did, that the didn’t, that they went through, was just so insane. And the stuff people do, for each other, for love, whether then or now, is so phenomenal precisely because at the time, it seems like nothing.
Lincoln’s Dreams (😭😭😭)
Lincoln’s Dreams is a novella about… well, it’s about, really, the fact that as a country, we still are struggling with the legacy of the civil war. It’s about how to reconcile the ‘bad guys’ being our own, how to square the fact that Robert E. Lee was a vicious general who fought to enslave black people but also a beloved husband and father. How we want to imagine we would all have been Lincoln but really, many of us wouldn’t have been. How deep the pain still goes for so many people. It was originally published in 1987, but is almost depressingly relevant today. I found it to be a powerful story thematically, but one of her weaker pieces literally.
The actual story is about a researcher for a historical novelist who meets a young woman who claims she’s having Robert E. Lee’s dreams. The story is more magical realism than Sci-Fi, and it’s never quite clear who in the story is sane in who isn’t, including the woman, the protagonist, her doctor, the author… pretty much anyone (or all of them) could be crazy, or none of them, or the dreams are really Lee’s, or they’re not… The story of trying to help this woman with the Lee dreams in interspersed with the novelist’s research about Lincoln’s. At one point he even explicitly says, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if she were having Lincoln’s Dreams?’, and that’s very much the undercurrent of the whole novella: wouldn’t this be easier if they were Lincoln’s dreams. The title is very clever… it would certainly be a story you went into differently if it were “Lee’s Dreams.” Isn’t it easier, the story asks, to feel sorry for Lincoln’s loss of a child than Lee’s, even though the child was innocent in both cases. Wouldn’t it be nice if we only ever had to look at the side of the war that makes us feel good. But doing that is dangerous, and the woman has no choice: she’s having these dreams and they’re not stopping.
The story is written in a surreal, dreamlike way that works thematically but does sometimes make things feel too unreal. I also found the protagonist the be kind of whiny and dramatic, and sometimes he made frustrating choices that made it hard to root for him in particular. That said, the writing and plot are compelling and the message is important. But I wouldn’t just pick this up unless you were a fan of Willis specifically.
Oh god, Passage. I started sobbing about a third of the way through this novel and never really stopped. Pretty sure every time I cry for the next year it will be Passage’s fault.
Passage is about a psychiatrist who is attempting to scientifically study the phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs) and determine the neuropsychological underpinning of them. I have no idea how good the science here is, but as someone with a hobbyist’s background in neuropsych, it sounded plausible, so take that how you will. She contends with an evangelical-style charlatan who has access to the hospital, and who I spent the whole book picturing as Mr. Frond. The plot, as it were, kicks off with her meeting a neurologist also interested in finding a scientific explanation of NDEs, and the study they attempt to do.
I don’t want to say too much about anything else because holy spoilers, but this is another story about friendship and coping mechanisms and the meaning of life as told through the day-to-day of some typical people trying to do something extraordinary. It was also about the Titanic.
This is the most recent thing of Willis’ I’ve read, and after Lincoln’s I was a bit concerned I wouldn’t like anything as much as the time-travelling-historians series, but this was both as moving a piece while being fundamentally different; it clearly wasn’t just a rehash of her other work, or vice versa. The scenes on the Titanic were especially evocative, and the comedy of errors I saw in Dog were put to a more dramatic effect here.
Also, I don’t often say this, but this would make a really good movie.
Anyway! That’s as far as I’ve gotten into Willis’ bibliography. She’s one of those authors I figure a lot of other people have strong feelings about, because I almost never see her in used bookstores. (Pierce and Bujold are also tough to find used.) Definitely check her out, especially the Oxford series, which is so ripe for fanfic.