Caution: Spoilers (kinda) Abound!
Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis
Oxford, 2060. Time travel is real. It’s possible—but it’s a well kept secret among the time-traveling historians. However, there’s something hinky going on with the drop points. Historians are slipping hours, days, sometimes weeks from their scheduled points, and it’s getting worse during WWII. When three historians get dropped into various parts of 1940, they become stuck—their drops close or become compromised. Now they are in England during the Blitz, and time is running out.
I was bowled over the sheer amount of historical research and attention to detail in these books.
Also—why a combined book review? Because I read Blackout in March and All Clear in July and both of those were well over a month ago and things have blurred together in my mind. Also, names have blurred together too, which happens when you have a fairly large cast of characters and several of them have 2-3 names throughout the points of whenever they are traveling.
It took me a minute to sink my teeth into Blackout, mostly because it starts off bouncing from 1940 to 2060 to 1945 to 1940 back to 2060 and each time it’s with a different character POV—some of which are the same damn person but using their cover name as their name. And some of the characters use different covers and have dropped into the WWII era at different points or switched names and holy hell it’s a lot.
But back to the research. I don’t know how accurate it was, with the specific time points and locations of the bomb drops (particularly since papers would post inaccurate times and distances in order to fool the Germans from the accuracy of their bombing and bombs), but it sure as hell felt real.
I truly felt that I was at Dunkirk with Mike, slowly moving through the waters while enemy warships and planes and chaos reigned around. I trembled with Polly in the bunkers and the tamped down fear and general British stoicism of the Londoners who lived through the Blitz with (most) of their sanity intact. And I felt the great annoyance as Eleanor/Merope tried to wrangle the children, particularly the set of half-feral goblins called the Hodbins.
My greatest annoyance with the books, however, was that they really could have been edited down quite a bit. A good chunk of the plot is characters rushing from point to point, frantically trying to contact each other and missing each other just barely every time—or crucial conversations being interrupted by something (generally, Hodbins) right at the moment Big Reveals Were About to Be Revealed (just like I am interrupted nearly every time I’m in the middle of a revelation by my wife, who is certainly a Hodbin in disguise). It was rush-rush-rush-rush-found yo-scene break. This was entertaining the first several times, but then became increasingly irritating when I discovered that this was the main plot of the book.
Rushing about frantically trying to leave messages to contact people or clattering about running from Point A while person B is running to Point C to find the other person. They are from 2060. Find a way to bring instant communication to the 1940s. You’re from 2060. Use your implants or something. Ugh.
Honestly, the 2060 characters annoyed the hell out of me. They felt so…anachronistic? I was like, this is Oxford in 20-motherfucking-60. Can’t one of them be queer??
My favorite scene, however, was probably Eleanor and the Hodbins stealing an ambulance to find whoever (can’t remember, also a spoiler if I did), then getting redirected by the actual British folk trying to do good and ending up driving throughout the worst night of the Blitz dodging bombs and fires and collapsing buildings and saving people with this brisk doctor in the back giving them bad directions and the Hodbins of all people giving her good directions. And then restealing the ambulance at the end of the scene so they could go and do the thing Eleanor had been trying to do in the beginning, and getting redirected by the doctor again because welp, looked like she wasn’t tired after all. It was hilarious (but all things with the Hodbins at their best was hilarious).
Frankly, this whole book made me realize that WWII was won entirely because of two awful children in the form of the Hodbins.
Literally anything they came near was destroyed, redirected or rendered completely different from the purpose to which it had been intended. They were the British’s secret weapon, in that no one knew they existed and yet they were always there.
Also, the other contemporary (aka non-2060 historian) that I really loved was Sir Godfrey, an older Shakespearian actor who inexplicably forms a crush on Polly (spoiler: this is a red herring) after realizing that she is a fairy from another world/time traveler and he keeps it secret the whole time.
Anywho, this was definitely a book to read if you are interested in the ordinary lives of Londoners (and other people of England) during the Blitz and the latter part of WWII.
The book doesn’t follow the soldiers or the pilots or Grand Heroes, but rather the everyday heroism of those who continued on. Who were scared, but reported to work and did their bit. Who hid in the bunkers, but tried to make the best of it. Who displayed a deep bravery through their everyday actions—even if they felt shallow at first glimpse with their focus on a specific lipstick or not having a good rotation of dresses to wear each evening. Who persevered, despite imminent threat of invasion and probable death from above. Who lived.
These books were for those heroes.
The ones who won the war through a hundred million small actions.