Review: All Clear, Connie Willis

Both these things are true: I liked and felt satisfied with All Clear, the second of two books about time-traveling Oxford historians who get stuck in Britain in World War II; and, it is perfectly possible I will never read another book by Connis Willis.

Blackout left us on a cliffhanger. Eileen, Polly, and Mike, three Oxford historians from the future, are trapped in London in World War II. Their drops did not open to return them to Oxford, and their Oxford retrieval teams never showed up. They have begun to fear that they have accidentally changed history, that England will lose the war because of changes they inadvertently made while time traveling. All Clear picks up right where Blackout left off, and we’re off and running.

First, the good stuff. Though the central characters aren’t always hugely interesting, many of the secondary characters are. I could have spent every minute with Sir Godfrey and the Hodbins. Whenever Willis gave her characters a stake in the contemps, the book took a turn for the better. I wished we’d seen more of Michael’s relationships at Bletchley Park, as these felt like all plot and no character work. But Polly and Sir Godfrey, Eileen and the Hodbins, those were real relationships and I cared what happened to them in the context of those relationships.

Oh, and Colin. I cared about Colin too. But there wasn’t enough of Colin, and this brings me to complaints. One of my problems with Blackout was how unbelievably frequently Connie Willis felt she had to hit the same beats; in particular, the fact that the historians knew things the contemps didn’t know. There’s less of this specific thing in All Clear, but the problem persisted. I lost count of how many times one of the characters thought “How all occasions do inform against me”, because they had just barely missed getting in touch with someone who could get them home. I get that this was a plot point in the end, all the coincidences, but I got so fed up with it. Willis does the same thing, on a smaller scale, with Colin. He’s an excellent character, and we all want to see him show up, but — SPOILERS HERE ARE SPOILERS SPOILERS ARE HERE — when he does, it’s only very briefly, and Willis spends every minute of Colin time telling us how sad Polly was that Colin sacrified so much for her and spent so much time, etc., etc., etc.

I don’t need to be told the same thing that many times. These books would have been so much better if Connie Willis had trusted her readers to get the point without beating it into the ground. I know they would have been better because when Connie Willis does let implication do some of the work for her, the books are really fun. I like to feel like my participation is necessary for a book to work.

Fortunately — coming back around to good stuff, and the reason I felt satisfied with the book as a whole — as a period of history, the Blitz is rock solid. It is difficult to screw up a book set during the Blitz. The Blitz is one of those few times in history where you can quit worrying about whether the bad guys were actually as bad as they’re painted (yes; cf. Holocaust), and whether the good guys were actually as keepcalmandcarryony as they’re painted (yes; cf. I was in London for the 2005 Tube bombings and everyone kept totally calm and carried totally on and it was weirdly inspiring). Thus I enjoyed All Clear and rooted for the characters I was supposed to root for. It’s just, I don’t think a book should coast on its setting, especially if the author didn’t invent the setting.

35 thoughts on “Review: All Clear, Connie Willis

  1. These books would have been so much better if Connie Willis had trusted her readers to get the point without beating it into the ground.


    Everything you say in this review, I completely agree with. I was so frustrated by the end of All Clear that I was thankful to turn the last page except I’ve found myself missing the secondary characters a lot since then, especially Sir Godfrey.

    • I did too, I really liked Sir Godfrey. It’s a shame, because some of the characters were fantastic and I think Connie Willis could have done more with them, if she hadn’t been so busy doing the missed connections.

  2. I’ve never read this book (or any part of the series), but I absolutely hate it when authors think they need to s-p-e-l-l it out. We get it, dudes!

    • I know! This is just one of many, many reasons that I love Diana Wynne Jones. I’d miles rather be a little confused now and then (like the end of Fire and Hemlock) than have everything drummed into my head with a railroad spike.

  3. Yeah, I thought there was no reason for the two-book thing; if some of the repetition of theme had been cut it would have been a great single novel. And it would have improved the main characters, because it wouldn’t have taken them 600 pages to realize that contemps are human.

    • That is an excellent point. I forgot that it was originally going to be one book, and I think it could easily have stayed just one book. It’s not like the latter books in the Ender trilogy, which really had to be split up.

  4. I love Willis, but have not read these books, and think I might be frustrated that the first one ends in a cliffhanger. I also get what you say about beating plot points into the ground,as sometimes I feel that Willis does this a lot. I am going to have to think about whether or not I want to read these books now, but I do appreciate your honest and clever review!

    • The books are a lot of fun in some ways! If you don’t mind skimming past a number of pages where the same point gets made over and over again, they’re definitely worth reading.

  5. I like time travel, and I like the Blitz – but I have a feeling I wouldn’t finish this book. Maybe you need something with a little more meat on its bones, like Abigail Pogrebin’s ONE AND THE SAME. Somebody lovely, cultured and charming gave it to me.

    • Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend them to you, Mumsy dearest. But I will keep my eyes peeled for betterish time travel/Blitz books, and if I find any I will let you know. I do want to read the Pogrebin book! At Christmas perhaps.

  6. On the one hand, I really want to read this… On the other hand, I didn’t love my attempt at Willis last year. It was just ‘okay’ for me, so it doesn’t inspire me to rush out and read more. I do like the idea behind these two books, though, so maybe I am being too critical…

    • I had the same experience with Willis — The Doomsday Book was not a good read for me, and I wouldn’t have read more Willis if these hadn’t been about Britain in World War II (my fave).

  7. hmm… i read To Say Nothing of the Dog last year and really enjoyed it. your review has left me unsure of whether i should continue on to her other books. i don’t like being hit in the head repeatedly.

  8. I have Doomsday Book on my tbr as well as the one To Say Nothing of the Dog which I love by title alone. I’ll just be true to me and avoid this series.

  9. These two are my favorite out of her books because I love the setting and the time travel. I did get a little bit frustrated with the near misses, but then when I realized it was a facet of the plot I didn’t mind it. I agree that there was not enough Colin, and I wish that she would have elaborated on the characters’ fates at the end.

    If you don’t like this style though then you probably wouldn’t want to read her other books. Although most are much shorter she does employ the near misses a lot in her writing.

    • Yeah, I didn’t mind it as much as I’d have minded if it weren’t a facet of the plot, but it still bugged me. Why not more Colin? I wish her other books had loads more Colin (though I guess they don’t).

  10. I had started to listen to the audio version of Blackout but it was a difficult book to listen to so I didn’t end up getting very far. The story did interest me enough that I plan to pick it up again someday, and I’m glad to hear that the sequel is good as well. I was particularly interested in the Blitz story line since I had never learned about it before.

  11. I have To Say Nothing Of The Dog on my wishlist (and that one does sound fun), but haven’t read anything by this author, yet. After your review I’m not sure I’d read this series.

    • I always feel a little mean when my review makes people not want to read the books! These two books are not without merit and indeed have many lovely parts. Promise.

  12. I’ve often come across reviews of Connie Willis books on the blogs and she often inspires big love. So it’s interesting to read your review. I’m not sure I can do time travel (apart from time traveller’s wife, which was very good, so maybe I ought to pay attention to the fact I CAN do it). But the Oxford historian thing is most tempting. Hmmmm. I will procrastinate further, I think.

  13. I think To Say Nothing of the Dog may be the Willis book for you (there’s even some WWII stuff, although it’s Coventry not London and more of the book is set in Edwardian times). I was really confused for bits of that book, but it all came together and I got that nice satisfying ‘Oh’ feeling. No redriving of the spike into the head in that book.

    Also I just read a series of posts about Alan Turing. Yeah, they were not good times. Interesting (in a morbid way) that Oscar and Turing both took different paths after being charged (jail vs drug *sarcastic voice* therapy) and they both came to sad, early ends. Society kills, folks.

    • Oh, I thought To Say Nothing of the Dog was all Victorians all the time. No? World War II also?

      Can you link me to the Alan Turing posts? I am interested! I feel terribly sorry for him!

  14. Hmmm…I still want to read these books. But now that you mention it, there were secondary characters in To Say Nothing of the Dog that I liked better than some of the main characters. It’s not making me re-think my love of that book though, just some of here writing ticks which I’ll now be on the lookout for.

  15. I just wanted to reiterate that even if you didn’t like Domsday Book (which I didn’t) and found parts of Blackout/All CLear tiresome (who wouldn’t?), To Say Nothing of the Dog is by far the best of these and well worth reading. It suffers from none of the problems of the other books and has the most loveable cast of characters. Read it!

    • Okay, noted! Do you feel that I would need to like Jerome K. Jerome in order to like To Say Nothing of the Dog? Because he’s a funny guy, but he also done Oscar Wilde wrong and so I’m contractually obligated to loathe him.

      • I read TSNOTD before I read Three Men in a Boat. I didn’t really like the latter much and found it only moderately amusing. Willis’ book is much different, more character-based and less slapstick, which still incorporating elements of farce. She does give a big shout-out to JKJ in the text but it isn’t really a big part of the book.

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