on August 13, 2002
I have been inspired to pen my first book review; pity my inspiration is so negative. I have had a long time interest both in time travel as well as medieval history. That combined with many glowing reviews here made me look forward to buying and reading this work.
It is easy to dispose of the time travel aspect of this book. To me, the interesting part of time travel speculation are the various problems that an interesting time travel story can produce. Does the traveler create non-historical change? Can he/she meet early relatives? In this book, the author disposes of all of that by insisting that a time travel trip cannot happen or occur if the traveler can thereby produce change in the history stream. That is just not very interesting.
Much is made by some reviewers of the amount of "research" done by the author. I just don't see much of that. After all, the time traveler in this book is still in her sick bed by page 200!
If a reader wants "research" on medieval history, I would refer him to a good non-fiction work by Tuchman entitled A Distant Mirror. THAT book demonstrates research!
I do have to say, though, that the portion of the book dealing with events in the early 21st century does set a record for detailing the most number of phone calls completed, not completed, missed, dropped,or talked about of any book I have ever read.
I cared about precious few of the characters--perhaps Agnes comes closest. By the end of the book, the major interest I had was whether or not that darned cow would be milked.
From checking some of the many reviews of this book presented, I see that almost everyone either loved or hated this book. I was prepared to love it but ended up glad that I could get through it.
on February 26, 2002
Many reviewers have covered the book's slow pacing, the anachronistic 1950s technology, the fact that the characters in 2048 are much less vibrant than those in 1348. I agree with all of this; had I not been on an 11-hour flight I would have given up on this book after 200 dragged-out pages.
Willis' setting of modern Oxford was laughable. (One five-star reviewer raves about her marvelous setting of Cambridge, so I'm not sure he even read the same book I did.) Her geography of the area around Brasenose College is sketchy and incorrect, and I had no sense whatsoever of this city where so much of the book takes place. I cannot believe she visited even once. And although she spen an lot of time on the research, she only thanks one librarian in the acknowledgements, which seems awfully suspicious for a 600 page novel steeped in history. (Look at the acknowledgements page of any historical non-fiction book and you'll see what I mean.)
Just as I dislike Convenient Weather (i.e. the plot is stormy and therefore it is lashing with rain), I despise Convenient Deaths. The clerk drags out for days and days in an ugly manner, finally dying with an ulcerated eye, having said nothing coherent. Roche, on the other hand, dies swiftly and gracefully, whispering beautiful last words. Much of the plague section reads realistically (the cows wandering around unmilked), though it's all very repetitive and heavy-handed.
Why wasn't Kivrin's translator working in the early parts of her visit to 1348? Was it because the language had shifted so dramatically (something that was, in fact, well foreshadowed) that her language training literally had that little use? The fact that the translator adapted to the spoken language, figuring it all out from context, was a nice bit of SF. But if the language difficulty was due to it being the wrong year, I wanted some mention of it. And with all the repetitive infodumping, I would have liked some attention paid to how a language could shift so much as to be unrecognizable. Perhaps it could--I have no idea--but it isn't so obvious as to be glossed over without mention.
Finally, some reviewers have commented on the fact that Basingame is searched for throughout the book, then forgotten. Others have suggested that Roche should have been a future time traveler (else why state THREE TIMES that he prays in the SAME WAY Kivrin talks into her own corder). I was waiting for Roche to *be* Basingame. Alas, that's more of a plot twist than this book could provide.
on February 24, 2002
I don't really understand how this book got the Nebula award. On what grounds? The science fiction is just not there. We never get to learn about the Net. Time paradoxes are never explained to us. On the other hand, the book fails even in common sense issues. Consider for a minute the possibility of time travel becoming a reality. You 'd agree it 'd be the most spectacular achievement in the history of human race. Every mission in the past would be much more special than any mission NASA has ever undertaken. However, in this book, we are supposed to believe that trips in the past are actually run by "techs" in universities. Have you ever thought of MIT or Cambridge launching a manned mission to Alpha Centauri? Moreover, we are supposedly living in a future where time travel is "old news". And instead of learning the truth about the really important issues of the past (Who was Jesus Christ for example?) the writer focuses on the Middle Ages Black Death. As anyone cared! On literary grounds, the characters are as cardboard as you can get, and the jokes about "running out of toilet paper" etc are at least pathetic. And one can't fail to notice that only 10 years after, the book is already dated when it comes to communications. Page after page, people are desperately trying to find a phone. I wonder, weren't there cell phones back in the medieval year 1992?
This book is exactly as disappointing as Crichton's Timeline. If you want to read a gem on time travel, try to find the masterpiece "The end of Eternity" by Isaac Asimov.
on September 21, 2001
Looking back on my life I can remember many times that I thought to myself "Self, why are you wasting your precious time here on earth doing what you're currently doing?" As I get older and time becomes more precious, I try to get myself into these situations as little as possible. All I can say about reading the Doomsday Book is "oops, I did it again". As far as books go, I try to protect myself by sticking to the recommendations of respected reviewers, (in this case the clerk at the local (bookstore), or winners of prestigious awards (Hugo). But in this case all that care and concern was circumvented by what was one of the worst books I have ever read; maybe not the worst in absolute terms, but certainly the worst relative to expectations.
In the interest of not wasting any more of my aforementioned precious time let me be succinct. The characters were stupid, uninteresting, and predictable. The plot (I use the word "plot" with tongue firmly implanted in cheek) devices were shamelessly contrived, endlessly repetitive, and...Oh, did I say repetitive already? The supposed historically accurate perspective was laughable. I could be historically accurate too if I wrote a story that essentially takes place in one room and sometimes the woods.
This was a terrible book in almost every way...except maybe weight. It was pretty heavy; I'll say that for it.
(...) What a waste of time.
on August 20, 2001
I am not a "medievalist" (whatever that is supposed to mean), so I can't vouch for the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the scrap of medieval life depicted here, but having read this book, I can testify that it IS a mere scrap. As far as depiction of medieval life goes, it risks almost nothing. We are essentially confined within one house and within one half of a household (the men have been called away and never return).
Science fiction as a whole tends to allow little character development or its character development tends to seem gratuitous. This is because science fiction necessarily concerns itself with the effect of scientific technology and that effect tends not to be an effect on individuals in particular. Since, despite its marketing, THE DOOMSDAY BOOK is obviously NOT science fiction, it is not so constrained, and its characterization ought to be judged by the the standards of mainstream fiction, not by the standards of a genre that has other, compensating, attractions. Judged thus, it falls very short. No character in the entire book is "rounded" or fully developed. The only character that ever interested me, as a character, was the younger of the two children of the medieval household, and she interested me only briefly, in passing.
(American Heritage, first edition: "disinterested, adj. Free of bias and self-interest; impartial." "Disinterested" does NOT mean "uninterested"; "UNINTERESTED" means "uninterested", and when this BOOK means "uninterested" it should SAY "uninterested". In my opinion, we are fully justified in rating a book that abuses the simple, common term "disinterested" and others, as this book does, one star only, and on this basis only. There is NO excuse for it. This is not, however, as it happens, why I have rated THE DOOMSDAY BOOK one star only.)
on August 9, 2001
This book is neither literature (it isn't even grammatical) nor a page-turner (nothing happens in it). It certainly isn't science-fiction (it isn't premised on the human consequences of a new technology). You might call it "historical fiction", except that it keeps to a tiny claustrophobic corner of the epoch it is supposed to explore, possibly because it fears to be found wrong. In short, no matter how you slice it--and there is a lot of very, very repetitive verbiage to slice--, it is worth little. I can only think those praising it have not read many books, at least not many good books.
(If the idea of someone venturing from modern times into the middle ages and eventually finding himself, against his initial prejudice, sympathetic with its inhabitants appeals to you, then read Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". Novels treating the era more realistically include Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" and Hermann Hesse's "Narcissus and Goldmund". For fluff, but at least entertaining and diverting fluff, there is Michael Crighton's "Timeline".)
on January 26, 2001
I really did not enjoy this book. The story itself is passably interesting and could have resulted in a much better result. I think the two things that bothered me the most were the characters and the annoying plot mechanisms used by the author to try to build suspense and tension. With regard to the characters, most of them were either weeping and wailing over their self-created predicaments and misunderstandings, or allowing someone else to walk all over them when it would have been just as easy to speak one word and put a stop to it. While characters of this ilk have a place, this book has nothing but. By far the most annoying thing in this book were the contrived 'crises' that were seemingly designed to increase tension and/or increase the page total. The book is rife with examples of one or another of the aforementioned characters bemoaning the fact that they absolutely MUST speak to another character in order to straighten out some grave misunderstanding or find out some vital piece of information. They try and try, but something always prevents them. They finally (chapters later)get a perfect opportunity and GET DISTRACTED AND MISS IT (and then moan about their loss)! This happens again and again and again (at the hospital, trying to find her entry point, etc). It is as if the author is so enamored with this plot device that she can think of no other. It gets very tiring and frustrating and in at least one instance led me to throw the book across the room. Another annoying plot contrivance is that we have to wade through page after page of the heroine trying to figure out some trivial event when the answer has been made painfully clear. It just makes her look stupid. An example: The little girl is repeatedly(for over two pages) bugging our heroine because she wants to visit her dog's grave at the church. Our heroine keeps saying 'No'. Moments later, the little girl disappears. We have to slog through TEN PAGES of the heroine's frantic searching of the attic, the basement, the stables, etc. before she thinks to look for her at the church! Nothing comes of it, it was apparently just put in to pad the page count. Perhaps this is supposed to induce tension, but after countless episodes of this stupidity it is just annoying. I have lost much respect for the Nebula and Hugo awards because of this book.
on July 16, 2000
I am a great lover of historical fiction so I started reading the Domesday Book full of enthusiasm. While there have been other good books written about the period, namely "In the Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco I was looking forward to reading The Domesday Book because it specifically dealt with the Beubonic Plague - arguably one of the most important events of the High Middle Ages.
To say that I was dissapointed and dissillusioned with this book is a huge understatement. I was looking foreward to reading a decent piece of historical fiction - instead The Domesday Book turned out to be poorly written piece of science fiction, not worthy of even a Star Trek episode.
The plot takes place in the future and in the past, with characters traveling in between the two through the use of some mystical portal that wouldn't be out of place on the Enterprise holodeck. The plot is so utterly predictable that it is insulting to one's intelligence. Girl goes to study Middle Ages, faces adversity, falls in love with the locals, who then all die in horrible, horrible, and quite predictable ways, girl is then saved by companions from the future. There, I have spared you (the potential buyer and reader) the time and patience necessary to slog through this 600 page dud. There is no character development, no plot twists or turns, no redeeming grace in this book what so ever. The scholarship is so bad as to be actually insulting. I'm sure some historian is surely rolling over in his grave at the moment, in light of all of the errors the author committed in portraying English society in the 14th century (i.e naming characters with Galic and Saxon names that fell out of use after the Norman Conquest - 300 years before the setting of the novel). I actually feel sorry that some tree had to be cut down to print this book - yes it's that bad.
Save yourself the trouble and read some of the other fantastic books written about the time period. If not Umberto Eco, then "Journeyer" by Gary Jennings, but don't waste your time and money on this.
on November 22, 1999
The Doomsday book promises, by its provocative cover blurb "to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit." What it does, rather, is explore the many limitations and cheap devices of a mediocre novelist and her apparent lack of editor: an ageless problem in itself.
Ms. Willis' gives us a convoluted plot complete with such afternoon soap-opera devices such as characters uttering cryptic words as they fall in and out of consciousness ("there's something wrong with ..." and then he passed out) and flat cartoon charaters such as Gilchrist and Mrs. Gaddson that are not funny, as intended, but ludicrous and simply tiresome. If I have judged the tone of the book correctly, she seems to be purposefully (having not read her other works) writing in an old English drawing room style. Experiment or no, the narrative is cluttered with page after page of micro-detailed reflection and pointless action. Characters weigh every possible action again and again, from choice of umbrella to Christmas wrapping, leading one to feel a bit resentful of Ms. Willis' lack of respect for the average memory of her readers. The book is filled with main and side characters that have little depth or purpose other than to populate Ms. Willis' world. Her endless descriptions of Kivrin's observations in the manor house and Dunworthy's myriad choices feel forced and padded. Lacking a sound prose style or a gift for insightful description, these winding narratives simply test the patience of the reader.
When one finally beaches oneself on the last few hundred pages, one is treated to an in-depth viewing of plague victims slowly and horribly dying and a ridiculous rescue mission complete with man who takes along insistant youth (Did anyone really buy Dunworthy taking Colin with him?) At that point, we are supposed to care enough about these people to sympathize with the horror of their disintegration but since we have been supplied with narrative lacking solid characterization, it simply turns into melodrama and ultimately, to a false ending full of holes and completely unsatisfying (if she goes back with Dunworthy, how do they find her recorder?).
There are one or two interesting ideas, such as the problems of her translator with dialects and the well-researched (I imagine) social roles of the time but these ideas could just as well have been part of a very sucessful short story.
The Doomsday Book could have been edited considerably for poor sentence structure and obvious padding but even in the hands of a surer novelist it would have made a fair diversion at best. The reviews above prompt one to wonder of any of the critics bothered to read past the first fifty pages. I saw no evil here, no indomintable spirit of humanity - in fact, I saw no 'universal' themes whatsoever that even warrant mention, let alone superlatives. A poorly written, over-praised book that should be avoided ... like the plague.
on January 5, 1999
Boring! I really, really tried to make it through. After 230 pages nothing had happened so I stopped. Why is this book called science fiction? The only apparent reason is because of the use of time travel, but even that is poorly depicted. The author avoids questions about the "rules" of time travel by simply installing an entity called the "net" that somehow stops problematic things, such as bombs or an encounter that would change history, from travelling back in time. But wouldn't any encounter alter the future? Willis should have read the Bradbury short story, "The sound of thunder," before writing this. Willis doesn't seem to have put any thought into the time travelling idea, which isn't surprising because it has no place in the book. It's simply a lame excuse to describe a historical encounter. Also, the future could be the 1970's for all the description it is given. As I have said I only reached page 230, but what I read any editor worth his salt would have cut in half. Did you like the 50 pages worth of garbage spent with the characters trying to trace the origins of the virus? Unbelievably dull.