Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis [thoughts on time traveling historians]


Blackout and All Clear cover

Blackout  and All Clear 
 by Connie Willis
February 2010 and  October  2010
Publisher: Spectra

Blackout’s Goodreads description: In her first novel since 2002, Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Connie Willis returns with a stunning, enormously entertaining novel of time travel, war, and the deeds—great and small—of ordinary people who shape history. In the hands of this acclaimed storyteller, the past and future collide—and the result is at once intriguing, elusive, and frightening.

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive.

I found Blackout randomly on Overdrive. I think the cover and title just seemed interesting. When I read what it was about, it definitely seemed like a me type of read. History, WWII, and time travel are things I really enjoy reading about!

About the story: In 2060, Historians go back in time to observe history. This series focuses on three and they each go back to Great Britain during World War Two. There are a lot of complications with the process and they have to figure things out.

Feelings: I really like these books as a whole. The first book ends in a completely ridiculous spot, and it almost doesn’t feel like a complete book at all. However, I enjoyed the whole story. Luckily the second book was available when I finished the first one! In the first book, you get to know the main characters and get familiar with the setting and what is happening. They are time traveling historians. TIME TRAVELING HISTORIANS. I love time travel stories and I love history. This story happens during the Blackout in London during World War II. I also love learning about World War II, because even though horrible things happened, people did try to work together and make it better, and I think this book does a good job of showing that.

The three main characters of the books are all student historians. There’s Polly, who is studying how Londoners kept heart during the Blitz, Merope/Eileen (mostly known as Eileen in the story because it was a common name in WWII, especially since she was “playing” an Irish maid) who is observing the evacuations of children to country manors and Michael/Mike who is supposed to be at a battle at Dover, researching heroes that came on their own accord to save downed sailors. The story starts out in Oxford 2060, with all three of them talking and learning that the lab that’s in charge of sending them on assignments has been in an upheaval and switching orders of assignments, including Mike’s. They’re all sent to separate locations and months in 1940, but they each begin to face unexpected problems with their assignments.

Time travel stories almost always have some issues and this story is no exception:

  • I don’t understand how the future has time traveling technology but they’re letting history students use it? That is like the most ridiculous idea ever. There’s no way governments would just be like “Oh, time traveling technology? Let’s let young people gallivant around through important historical events, no big deal.” Unless the future just has a drastically different government, which is very possible. Maybe they think it’s fine. But even with “slippage,” it still seems crazy to me.
    • There is supposed to be a paradox-safe sort of padding called “slippage”  and the instructors and scientists in charge of the technology and students mostly (there are some that disagree) believe it’s impossible for them to affect history at all.


Slippage is basically the cause of a lot of the problems, it’s normal and it causes travelers to get there a few hours after they’re supposed to or maybe in a different place. The team at the lab is supposed to research drop sites so nobody will see anything suspicious. In the prep stage for the main characters, something is obviously starting to go down with slippage, but they don’t know much about it. They only know some things have changed. When they don’t really know what is going on, they begin to wonder if they can really affect history or not. They have implants of some important details, such as certain places hit in the blitz, but they don’t know every single detail. When they take actions and see results, they start to wonder if they might have changed the complete course of the war.

Overall, the book really focuses on small interactions and how little things might have unexpected results. I loved seeing the characters puzzle it out and worry about what was happening.

I loved that the three main characters were dealing with WWII situations with all the knowledge of the future, because it added to the reading experience. Two of many:

  • Londoners had a superstition about the ravens of the Tower of London and when some died during the war, they brought in more so people wouldn’t be alarmed. I had no idea about that before I read this book.
  • Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot and others were on Hitler’s lists and he planned to put them in camps. I am pretty sure I knew this at some point and had not thought about it in a while.

There were a few other issues with the actual story and not just time travel stuff. The main one has to do with Eileen and how I didn’t really like the transition of her character from book one to two. I think the ending makes up for a little bit of it, but not all of it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but she kind of gets pushed to the side a bit and I didn’t think it was fair. There were some time related tiffs I had that weren’t actually about the time travel: some chapters were in the past during the blitz, some were in 2060, some were in other times. It could have actually been my fault because I wasn’t paying attention, but some of the other time chapters really confused me because they either didn’t tie the characters together or I missed the names completely. It took me a few of these chapters to figure out what was going on and once I did I was fine.

I kind of surprisingly fell in love with these books and characters, and became overwhelmingly  invested in their story. It made me cry (not just sad crying), and the kind of crying that I was sort of like “Oh, I love this” because I didn’t expect to like it so much. Also, I love that romance wasn’t driving the story but it was there in different parts of the story and it was heartfelt and lovely. Plus, there was so much other love and just community that it was just great. I think maybe I don’t even love the ending, or “answer” I guess, but I love the story overall and I wanted to know more about the characters, I didn’t feel ready to leave them. I knew Willis had written several other books, but I just now, while writing this review, realized there are other books with historians traveling in time set before these, and I am going to be reading them at some point!  I definitely plan on looking into the rest of her work, also!

Basically: If you’re willing to get through a bit of slowness and you love reading about survivors in World War II and Time Travel, I think these books are worth your time.

If you have happened to have read them, tell me your thoughts! Or, have you read anything else by Willis? Anything similar or comparable? Let me know!

Connie Willis’s website

5 thoughts on “Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis [thoughts on time traveling historians]

  1. Pingback: April Recap | a blighted one

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