Book 1 of 2014!
What a way to ring in a new reading year! With a solid 5-star book pulled straight out of the TBR jar that I absolutely loved. Apparently this book won both the Hugo and the Nebula back when it was published in 1991. I have no idea how Connie Willis had escaped my notice, but she did. I had never heard of her before last year, when this book was suggested to me by a friend.
Basic plot info - set at Oxford University in the not so far distant future, time travel is possible, and the historians are sending a young woman - Kivrin - back to 1320 Britain to learn more about the Middle Ages. This is comfortably pre-Black Plague, which does not arrive in Britain until 1348.
The modern world is post-pandemic, medically advanced, and terrified of unidentified illnesses. They have vaccines for everything, and T-cell upgrades, and can fight off most known infections. Kivrin returns to the Middle Ages well inoculated against all of the modern infections, as well as the Black Plague. From the focus on viruses, bacterium, and vaccines, it's pretty clear that the events in the book are going to have infectious implications. And, indeed, they do. Much drama ensues.
There is a split narrative between the characters in future Oxford and Kivrin in the far distant past. I preferred Kivrin's storyline to the one occurring at Oxford, although both were entertaining.
Reading a number of the reviews, there were complaints about the amount of time that Willis spends in the modern timeline with characters attempting to reach one another by telephone. I was in law school in 1991, and did not have a cell phone, as they remained the province of the very privileged. She apparently did not foresee that as early as 2014 cellular phones would be so ubiquitous that small children have their own smart phones and can post status-updates while on the school bus. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I do not fault her for not predicting that our lives would be entirely taken over by social media and technology in less than 25 years.
Overall, though, it is the medieval timeline that really shines, in my opinion. Willis humanizes her characters, and you ache for them as the events begin to unfold. I don't want to spoil the book because I do highly recommend it. Be advised, though, that this is a unique book. It is not a romance. It won awards for fantasy/sci fi, but it doesn't feel like science fiction or fantasy. There are no ray guns, no lasers, no aliens or space ships. There are no wizards, witches, elves, or unicorns. There is no magic, aside from the incredible magic that is modern medicine and antibiotics.
I love a book that is so immersive that the images generated stay with me for days. I can still picture Kivrin's village, and the villagers in my mind as of this writing. This is a book I will reread.
Challenge notes: This book is 1992 for my Century challenge. It has been in my TBR since it was purchased on 1/6/2013.