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.