The strangest thing about All Clear by Connie Willis is that, despite the accolades won by its predecessor (see my review of Blackout), this “sequel” to the 2011 Hugo Award winner for best novel is entirely absent from the big SF award listings. Despite its major flaws, it’s a great story, so I can only guess that the publication dates for both novels were so close — within the same year– that it only made sense to nominate the first book.
That observation alone perfectly demonstrates the main criticism of this series– this is supposed to be one book.
It feels like one book. The pacing is quick enough that it was jarring to reach the end of Blackout and discover there was an entire novel’s worth of conclusion in a second book. I try to go into books without much preparation or research, so I was completely unaware that Blackout had a sequel. And it was an unnecessary sequel. I would have preferred a much longer, but edited, one-book novel.
The All Clear follow-up was great, but it included a whole bunch of middle stuff that is interesting, but unnecessary. The story continues about the three primary characters, time-travelling Oxford historians from the year 2060, who go back to WWII England and get stuck. The second book continues a pattern from the first book that I was already frustrated with– the three characters separating to go do things, then stressing out about being separated in the middle of the Blitz, then finding each other again, and learning that their separation did not do much to improve their circumstance. You get a sense that Willis was so enamored with the era, that she constructed these moments just to expose the reader to all the research that went into the book. I certainly walked away from Blackout/All Clear feeling much more knowledgeable of and impressed by the people of the London Blitz, but the extra subplots didn’t do much to drive the plot forward. Essentially, the bridge between Blackout/All Clear was just a whole lot of bombs and running around.
Then again, maybe that’s what it feels like to live in the middle of a war. It’s just a multitude of unnecessary events that impact the people, but usually have no real impact on the ultimate conclusion of the war. Bomb all you want, but we all know that economic might and diplomatic prowess are the actual tools that win wars.
In my review of Blackout, I warned that some readers might dislike the lack of explanation about time travel, but it didn’t really bother me. By the second book, though, I did take issue with how little the historians (and even their professor!) understood of mechanics that governed time travel, even though it appears to be driven by a computer that one assumes was designed and controlled by humans. However, it’s almost as if they characterize time travel as being a separate intelligent entity– fixing things and preventing things that are beyond the understanding of the humans using the technology. In my mind, I’m wondering, “Forget the Blitz! Why aren’t these people studying this mysterious, intelligent force behind time travel?” I find it hard to believe that these scholars would demonstrate such willful ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity about the technology that they rely upon. In the real world, all scholars are expected to know as much about their tools as they do about their disciplines. Wouldn’t that be an OSHA standard, anyway?
Finally, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the characters start out with more dimension than they end up. Is that something else that war does to people? Devolve them into flat personalities? From the first book, I loved Eileen, but I hardly know her now. In my mind, she started out as the main protagonist, but lost that throne to Polly somewhere in the middle of the first book. I think Eileen could have lent more strength to the story if she had remained as the primary perspective. It’s obvious that Willis’ love for the background overshadowed her need to develop the characters, and it’s a shame. There were so many outlying characters and so much potential for emotional interaction and investment, but much of those opportunities were sacrificed in order to sprinkle in more research.
As cranky as this review sounds, I loved this series. These are minor complaints compared to my level of enjoyment of the story. It was suspenseful and engaging, and I was eager to pick up the book every day. Some potential was drowned in the length of the series, but I still believe this was one of the best stories I read all year. I would recommend it to anyone.