Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

Last week I reviewed Connie Willis’s Blackout, the first part of a two-part novel.  I was frustrated by Blackout’s slow pacing and repetitive story, but invested enough in the plight of lost time travelers Mike, Eileen, and Polly to want to find out what happened next.  After reading All Clear I stand by my review of Blackout — I think Blackout would have been better with about 200 fewer pages (or if 200 pages had been spent on character development instead of an endless series of failed attempts to find time-travel drops).  But All Clear made the journey worth it.

Time-travelling historians Eileen, Polly, and Mike have (finally) realized that their drops aren’t opening.  They are more or less stuck in London, 1940, during the worst of the London Blitz. Hoping to send a message back to 2060 Oxford, they try to think of other historians who might be around, like an older historian who made his career on his trip to be a firewatcher at St. Paul’s Cathedral and a colleague who was supposed to be observing the Ultra codebreaking work at Bletchley Park.  But they also have to figure out how to get by in London — they need jobs and a place to live, and they also face conscription into various wartime duties. All three of them share the same major worry: is the reason the drops aren’t opening that they altered events?  What if something they did somehow enabled Hitler to win the war?

Meanwhile, back at time-travel headquarters in 2060 Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy, the head of the time travel unit, realizes (finally) that something has gone very wrong.  He attempts to mount a rescue, leaving strict instructions with the lab that teenager Colin Templar (who has a big crush on Polly) is not allowed to come after them.

After finishing All Clear, my major criticism of this two-book story is that despite its length, the characters seem very slight.  Mike in particular doesn’t really have a personality.  He’s just a smart, nice guy who wants to help get his friends back to Oxford 2060.  Spirited Polly and sensitive Eileen have slightly more character development, but neither is particularly memorable.  I also disliked a plot twist involving Mike which was supposed to make him look heroic but ended up making him look like a major jerk.

Despite that, All Clear is an absorbing and tremendously satisfying read.  Willis finally lets her characters settle into World War II London and the historical fiction aspects of the book are wonderful.  A lot of the book is also spent on the theory of time travel.  Can travelers alter the past?  Does the continuum correct for alterations?  And if so, how far will the continuum go to preserve the sanctity of events?  Willis’s answer to this is smart and interesting, and sets up an absolutely beautiful final 200 pages.  There’s tremendous emotional payoff at the end of the book; I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up. Fans of time travel books or World War II history will find a lot to love in All Clear.

Rating: Library Loan — I can’t quite give All Clear my highest rating because of the weak characterization

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