Connie Willis – All Clear
Read my review of book:
Read By: Katherine Kellgren
Length: 23h 56m (641 pages)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: 18 November 2013
Finished: 05 December 2013
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I’m a huge fan of Connie Willis’s, and I was super-absorbed by the first half of this story.
must live in the past without
changing the future.
Summary: The action of All Clear begins right where Blackout ends. Time-traveling historians Mike, Polly, and Eileen were initially sent on different assignments, but have all converged in London in 1940. None of their drops will open to allow them to get back to 2060 Oxford, and they’re worried that they’ve done something to change the course of the war – particularly Mike, who unwittingly participated in the evacuation from Dunkirk. Since none of their drops are accessible and functioning, their next strategy is to find other historians who are also in 1940 England – Gerald Phipps, who was at Bletchley Park, or John Bartholomew, who was studying the Fire Watch at St. Paul’s Cathedral (and is the narrator of the titular story of the collection Fire Watch). And the longer it takes, the more desparate their situation becomes: not only does their knowledge of when and where the bombs will hit during the Blitz end after 1940, but Polly is also operating with a deadline. Her previous assignment was studying the V1 and V2 rocket attacks later in the war, and no historian can be in the same time period twice, so even if she can survive the Blitz, she has to get back to 2060 or risk the time continuum killing her in order to prevent the paradox.
Review: All Clear, like its predecessor/first-half Blackout, has some problems. It’s overlong and a little repetitive. The characters can be kind of dumb. Parts are really predictable. And yet, I firmly do not care. Even while objectively recognizing all of those problems, subjectively, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I was totally absorbed the whole time, I was crying at the end, and I honestly felt a little bereft once it was over and I had to go back to regular life and other audiobooks.
Normally I start reviews with things I liked, and then later get into problems I had with the book. In this case, though, I want to address the issues first, since they’re present right from the get-go… but I want to stress that even though I was aware of these issues, that didn’t stop me from really enjoying the book.
Okay, so, first. This book is long. The Blackout/All Clear duology is loooooong. I have no problem with long books, obviously, but these books are longer than they need to be. Even though All Clear is longer than Blackout, I thought it did a little better earning its length, because there are fewer repetitive parts. Eileen, Mike, and Polly are all in the same place for most of the book, so while there are still parts that are the same event from multiple perspectives, there’s at least not the constant cycling of “I should go check my drop / I can’t get to my drop / my drop is not working / why is my drop not working?” from each of the three perspectives like there was in Blackout.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some going in circles, because there definitely is, which brings me to my second issue, which is that argh the characters are pretty dumb at (narratively convenient) times. In general, they’re great characters, and I liked and felt like I knew all three of the leads (although I didn’t like that Mike decided he was the one responsible for getting the two girls back to the future, when he was neither the smartest nor the most experienced of the bunch, and the fact that each of them was constantly keeping secrets from the others – to protect their feelings / so they didn’t have to worry! – was also kind of obnoxious). But my biggest problem was that they’d occasionally forget decisions that they made or things they knew about the way time travel worked, if it was necessary to lead to the next part of the action. The best example is that as the three are trying to come up with other historians who were in London at the time, and whose drops they could potentially use, they start thinking of historians who had been there much earlier (in future time – that is, a historian who had come to 1940 from 2050 instead of 2060). But they realize that that strategy won’t work, as those historians, once they’d got back to the future, didn’t mention that Polly/Eileen/Mike had found them in the past, so they obviously didn’t find them in the past. Makes sense, right? But then, not much later, they set off to try to contact one of these historians anyways, which leads to the frantic events of the night of 29 December 1940, one of the worst air raids of the war. Narratively convenient, but it’s a problem if your readers have a better memory than your characters.
(I also had a little bit of an issue with the characters waffling back and forth about whether or not they were changing history, and I couldn’t quite get a bead on whether they believed that time was a chaotic system and the continuum would self-correct to prevent any changes from occurring, or whether they believed that their actions could affect the future. Mostly it seemed like they believed both at the same time, without realizing that “chaotic system” meant that their very presences by definition affected everything else. The story itself comes down clearer on those issues by the end, but it annoyed me that the characters were kind of dumb about it for most of the book. And the way the story resolves these issues is pretty predictable to anyone who reads many time travel stories.)
Okay, so. That all sounds really negative. But the thing was, those are all intellectual problems with that book, but in this case, this book grabbed me on such a visceral/emotional level that those intellectual issues only bothered me in the background. The absolute best part of these books is how vividly Willis brings the daily business of 1940s England to life, and I found her storytelling to be so immersive and so absorbing that I was able to overlook a lot of other things. For example, the night of 29 December 1940, that I mentioned above, takes up quite a few chapters. The motivation for what Polly, Mike, and Eileen are doing on that night – trying to find a historian before he goes back to 2054 – doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what they actually wind up doing, the depiction of the action of that night during the air raid, is really compelling. Essentially, whenever the characters were sitting around talking about time travel, it was problematic, but whenever they were out living in 1940, the story was great, and luckily, there’s more of the latter than the former.
I also absolutely loved the ending, and the way all of the disparate threads and interstitial pieces and various perspectives came together and into focus. Willis is good at that, at the synthesizing of all of the different threads and themes of her story (see Bellwether), but in this case, it plays less like a farce and more like me bawling my eyes out – even though I’d seen a lot of it coming! – while simultaneously marveling at how well it all fit. Also, the audio production was again excellent – Katherine Kellgren does a great job narrating. The only drawback was that in audio, it’s hard to flip back and find a particular scene to re-read it, which was unfortunate since this duology features a number of scenes from different perspectives – particularly at the end of All Clear we get second versions of scenes we’d seen for the first time somewhere in the middle of Blackout – and I wanted to go back to compare.
So, overall, this book was not perfect, and I absolutely understand how some people might have found it long, or dragging, or hard to get through. But I was engaged enough with the characters and immersed enough into the world that I couldn’t stop listening, and wound up really loving it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: These books have to be read together, preferably back-to-back (which I almost never do for sequels/series, but made an exception in this case. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction and/or time travel-y science fiction, who like their stories vivid and complicated and witty and touching all at once.
First Line: By noon Michael and Merope still hadn’t returned from Stepney, and Polly was beginning to get really worried.
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