Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Connie Willis began with Blackout something few authors dare to do: writing a book so long it has to be split in two. In an age of declining attention spans, it’s a risk few are capable of taking. In All Clear she continues the story from the first book, concluding the adventures of the three Oxford historians who travelled back in time to WWII Britain and became not only stuck there, but have also seemingly managed to change the course of history itself.
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Connie Willis Concludes her Epic Voyage
In a world where fewer and fewer people are capable of holding their attention on something for a prolonged period of time, we have seen the inevitable decline of truly long and epic stories not broken up into neat little segments. Connie Willis certainly didn’t let it deter her, as is evidenced by her All Clear series, and today we’ll be looking at the second novel in it after which the series is titled: All Clear.
Just to be clear, you absolutely need to have read Blackout before jumping into this novel. The second novel picks up right where the first one left off, as if both books were written as a single work and then split down the middle. If you aren’t familiar with the first chapter of the story, there’s absolutely no way you’re going to enjoy or understand the conclusion.
In any case, if you’d like a refresher on where things stand at the start of this book, our three time-travelling Oxford historians (Michael Davies, Merope Ward and Polly Churchill) have found themselves absolutely stuck in WWII Britain, and gone from mere observers to participants. As a result, it seems as if they’ve broken the one stipulation everyone thought unbreakable: nobody can change the past.
With the outcome of the war no longer being a certain thing, the trio decides to do all they can to make the most of their situation, to try and fix the mistakes they might have incurred for the rest of the world. What consequences will the shifting timelines present for the people of the future? They’re praying they won’t have to find that one out.
Meanwhile, in the great distant future of 2060, the historians’ supervisor at Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy, is set on doing everything in his power to bring his students back safe and sound. The task, however, seems impossible: the trio is now lost in time, stuck in one of history’s infinite variations. The real question is whether or not it’s even possible for them in the first place.
London Coming Alive in All Clear
Though the time-travelling component is a prominent, and even central one, in All Clear, the reality, the way I see it at least, is that the book is best-described as a work of historical fiction, driven forward by some key sci-fi components. In other words, the whole premise of the story is used by the author as an opportunity to bring 1940 London to life.
The pages are rich with history surrounding The Blitz, and I have absolutely no doubt the author dedicated a considerable amount of her time to conducting research pertaining to this time period. Her prose is always exact, and more often than not she brings to light various details one could scarcely think of without diving deeply into the topic.
The characters are, in my opinion, the central pillar of the story’s foundation. Some of them we’re already acquainted with, others make their appearance for the first time and don’t stay for too long, but they’re all united by a single common factor: they actually feel like people. Vividly-described and memorably portrayed, each person feels like a unique and essential element in a grandiose painting depicting human resilience in the darkest of times.
I do have tiny gripe with the book in regards to the characters, and it’s the fact we jump so often from one person to the other, and it starts to become a little difficult to keep up with the many overlapping stories and how they connect with each other. Nevertheless, it’s not to the point of being ridiculous, and if the reader invests a certain amount of effort into, the problem largely ceases to exist.
It’s especially overshadowed by the payoff of having all those people with their own stories coming together in an inspiring display of camaraderie and courage in the face of potential annihilation. When we get to see the sacrifices a person makes for the sake of their neighbours and witness a gripping depiction of the selfless help they offered each other, it becomes easy to overlook any flaws the book might have.
Connie Willis does indeed let herself get dragged into moments where she puts the science-fiction completely aside for the sake of her historical excursion, but they certainly don’t characterize All Clear as a whole. For the most part, she keeps her eye on the ball and remembers everything which has been set up in the previous book, intent on wrapping up every single loose end.
In Blackout we were made to watch as one setup was planted upon the next one, and forced to endure the fact that virtually none of them paid off right away. Thankfully, virtually every single plot thread started in the first chapter of the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion here, and I can only be amazed at how Connie Willis managed to weave together so many different threads into something cohesive.
Amidst all the characters colouring this story, our trio of historians still stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least in terms of importance to the plot. Their journey has understandably changed them in ways they didn’t anticipate in the slightest, and over the course of two books it’s difficult not to become attached to them, their plight, and their incessant determination to come back home.
Speaking of the time-travelling aspect of the story, It certainly is thought-provoking to think about the various repercussions changing history could have on those changing it, as well as the world at large. They are constantly tortured by the idea any of their actions might have unintended ripples in the timeline they came from, that anything they do might spell doom for people who would have otherwise made it.
The question as to whether or not our protagonists can even get back home constantly looms large, and watching Mr. Dunworthy’s efforts in this regard do give a curious and welcome respite from the World War II part of the story. Ultimately, I think this book will make you rather glad time travel seems to be, for now at least, forbidden by the laws of nature in our universe.
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The Final Verdict
All Clear by Connie Willis is a fantastic conclusion to the epic time travel journey which began in Blackout, living up to everything which was set up in the previous book. Combining a fascinating excursion through WWII London, a look into the potential consequences of voyaging through the past and a large cast of remarkable characters, this novel is without a doubt one of the more interesting I’ve read in this genre.
If you enjoyed the previous book, or are at least curious enough to see where the story goes and how everything pays off, then I think you should definitely take the next step, read All Clear and finish the story.
Connie Willis is an American writer of fantasy and science-fiction novels and has the distinction of having won eleven Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, as well as being an inductee in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her most celebrated works include Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, Passage, Blackout and All Clear.