I’ve never read any Connie Willis before, although I’ve actually been introduced to her and seen her on panels several times. She’s definitely one of the Grand Ol’ Dames of the SF community, at this point, having won a goodly number of Hugos, including one for Best Novel with Doomsday Book (which I own but, as mentioned, have not yet read) in 1993. Like (apparently) Doomsday Book, this novel tells the story of time-traveling historians from the latter half of the twenty-first century, and as you might guess from the title, the place and period to which they are traveling in this particular book is England during World War II, and primarily the Blitz of London.
So as I may have mentioned before, I’m terribly picky about my time-travel stories, but in some ways this does it right. The theorists who have enabled and study the time travel process itself have, for decades in Willis’ universe, believed that time-travelers cannot alter events in such a way that it would cause a paradox that would invalidate their own timeline. This effect is apparently accomplished by time travel flatly not being “allowed” by the universe if the presence of the traveler there at that time would have that effect. So time-travelers cannot affect the past in ways that will affect their own future, but the events of the past can totally affect them, even kill them. So of course time travel is strictly regulated, and only individuals who’ve shown remarkable confidence and flexibility to the situations they find themselves in are allowed to travel through time…oh, I’m sorry, I started writing there about the characters I wish were in this book, and not the incompetent ninnies that actually populate it.
I constantly got the impression while reading this that Willis intended these people and events to be funny, and just failed. It’s like, she has everything set up with the timing of a slapstick comedy of errors (and/or manners), but the actual events are tragic instead of humorously off-expectation, and the people are dull, sad, annoying, or all of the above. Outside of the failed comedy, you have an obviously extremely thoroughly researched tale of the everyday sort of men and women who did their best to live their lives through a horrible time, and did their part for their country as a matter of course when they were called upon to do so, edited into a never-ending series of cliffhangers that certainly generate a “just one more chapter” frisson. I quite enjoyed the depth of detail that you get into the period and its events…but I came away not sure why it was necessary for this to be a genre story at all. It seems like 95% of the novel and its plot could have been told without involving time travel whatsoever. I might have enjoyed that story more, really…it certainly would have made more sense than sending young and ignorant grad students into horribly dangerous periods of history with almost no procedural oversight! At any rate, I didn’t put this novel below “No Award” on my Hugo ballot, although I certainly was tempted to.