Oxford, England, the near future. Time travel has been discovered and is being used by scholars to explore England’s history, but thus far only recent history. Against much advice, Kivrin, a female historian and graduate student, has gained permission to go back to the year 1320 a few weeks before Christmas, planning to study the life and times of a mediaeval town, disguised as a high-born woman whose coach has been attacked by robbers, leaving her stunned by a blow to the head and unconscious. Her tutor, Professor Dunworthy, has long opposed the trip as too dangerous, but he’s not in charge of the mission, and can only offer advice.
Kivrin goes through to the past, and immediately things begin to go wrong. She finds herself stricken with an unknown flu-like illness, with a high fever that soon has her hallucinating, raving, and barely conscious. She is brought to a manor house in a small village and cared for by the family there and the parish priest, where she fights the illness, unable to get back to her “drop” location because she doesn’t know where it is.
Meanwhile, things are going equally bad in the present, as, one by one, people involved with the “drop” begin to get the flu-like illness, starting with the technician who ran the time machine. Before a long a full-blown epidemic is in progress, and Professor Dunworthy is unable to get any information about what’s happening to Kivrin, who he suspects is in deep trouble.
This is a terrific book that I had a hard time putting down once I began it; in fact I carried it around with me to read in all sorts of odd moments. I had read one previous book by Willis, “To Say Nothing Of The Dog,” with the same setting and sharing the character Dunworthy, but that book was more light-hearted, almost a comedy of errors. This one is much grimmer, as it explores human suffering in the past and the present, but it’s far from depressing. Willis populates her stories with characters that are plucky and resourceful, even if they each have their personal obsessions. Both Kivrin in the past and Dunworthy and his friends in the present continue to battle illness with every idea and resource available, even though each is fighting a heart-wrenching losing battle for much of the book. Other characters either oppose them maddeningly, or carry on with their own obsessions to some comic effect, like the willful girl Agnes in the past, and the archaeologist Professor Montoya in the present, each determined to have their own way and get around any annoyances like rules and quarantines.
This is a story of humanity trying to survive in two hostile worlds. The science is minimal, but the ideas and characters are top-notch. I can certainly see why it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the top ones for science fiction. It will carry you into the grim realities of the mediaeval world as well as modern-day bureaucracy. And, it’s ultimately a very satisfying journey. I caution you, though, this is not a good book to read if you’re not feeling well yourself. I had a few bad allergy days while in it, and felt like I was coming down with something dire.