Saturday, 22 December 2012

Blackout/All Clear

A quick glance at my bookcase(s) should tell you that I'm no stranger to either the doorstopper or the epic series. So when I start a review talking about a book's length, you need to bear in mind that I got A Dance With Dragons in hardback on release day, read The Stand in under a fortnight, am in the process of re-reading Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series, and in general don't mind a good long read.

Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear is certainly a long read. It's one of few novels I've read that's had to be split into two heft volumes, such is its length - 1,400 pages of time travelling, the Blitz, and agonising over whether the course of history has been changed.

For such is its premise. A group of historians are sent to England in 1940 on separate assignments from the time travelling labs at the University of Oxford in 2060. Once there, they find they can't get back home. The greatest worry of the protagonists - Polly, Eileen, and Mike, to use their 1940s cover names - is that they might do something that cost the Allies the War through their actions in the Blitz.

If that sounds like it isn't enough to fill a 1,400 page novel, you'd probably be right. There's a large incidental cast of characters, and the plot isn't quite as simple as it sounds from above (more of that later), but my main complaint does come down to the fact that there's about 400 pages of filler over the two volumes. Willis would no doubt argue that her world-building (which is excellent) and character development (which is less so) justifies the length, and she'd have a fair argument. What could be argued on the other hand is that she'd done so much research that she felt obliged to include it, hence the dragging middle section.

For that criticism, however, it does have to be said that the research is put to good effect. Although much of it fails to advance the action, it lends an authentic feel to events. Constant references to real bombings slipped in to speech remind the reader that the Blitz is a real and present danger in 1940, and the day-to-day lives of Londoners in the Blitz are faithfully represented in the shelters and the department stores where the protagonists sleep and work. However, it's as if Willis felt every aspect of her research had to be represented, hence long sections where little happens but characters point out things that were bombed in the middle of repetitive conversations about how they'll return to Oxford, or make side-journeys that serve only to bog down the pace.

But when the action does advance, it can be exhilarating. There's a section surrounding 29th December 1940, the night the fire watch saved St Paul's Cathedral, which is tense and fraught and genuinely exciting. Multiple plot threads come together and are expertly handled in a brilliant sequence which takes place while bombs hit London and characters are forced away from their introspection and into decisive action.

And, of course, there's the plotting. Connie Willis needs congratulating on her handling of a dozen intricate plot-threads. Some twists can be seen coming from a mile off, it has to be admitted, but when everything comes together it can be seen how well the novel works as a unit. Time travel as a plot device does give a writer licence to obfuscate and then reveal, and if done badly it can be painful to read, but Willis does it quite beautifully.

Blackout/All Clear is too long by some distance. But when it gets things right, which is more often than not, it proves to be an excellent read. As the winner of the Hugo for best novel in 2011, I was expecting a good read, and so it proved to be. It's difficult to think of too many books I've read this year that either equal or better it. And to quote a great man, you'll like it if you're into the wibbly wobbley timey wimey... stuff.

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