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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Blackout (audiobook) by Connie Willis

Be prepared - this is only half the story

16 CDs
18 hours, 56 minutes
Read by Katherine Kellgren

Connie Willis continues her on again/off again time travel series with Blackout, a book about time travelling historians from mid 21st century Oxford who are visiting World War II England. Katherine Kellgren does a fantastic job of nailing the great variety of English accents and the one American accent as well as the male voices.

Time travel has become routine for these historians - they have teams to help prepare them for their jumps into the past, including clothing, paperwork and implants to help them with accents. They are also able to learn vast amounts of information by way of sleep learning, which can be helpful for memorizing such things as every location of a V-1 attack or what time all of the air raids happened during the Blitz. But, the routine of time travel belies a deeper problem - that of "slippage".  The trips back and forth are becoming less and less accurate. They used to be able to pinpoint the placement of historians down to the minute but now they can be off by hours, days and even weeks. Some have a theory that, despite assurances to the contrary, this is evidence that the historians are actually changing history bit by incremental bit.

St. Paul's Cathedral, rising above the smoke and flames 
of afirebomb attack on December 29, 1940. The 
adjacent neighborhoods burned but St. Paul's was saved. 
This photobecame a symbol of London surviving 
these attacks.

Blackout is both science fiction and historical fiction, if one can do that. All of the main characters are historians from the future, but the great majority of the story is set in World War II England. There are 5 main plotlines. One features an historian working with evacuee children from London in the English countryside. Another features an historian who is sent to interview participants in the Dunkirk evacuation. A third historian is researching the Blitz - the German air raids on London during the Battle of Britain. There are two orphan stories about the V-1 Buzz Bomb attacks and Patton's in 1944 and Patton's Ghost Army in the D-Day invasion.

I called the last two "orphan stories" because they have no seeming connection with the rest of the story (except that one of the historians is in both 1940 and 1944). That is because Blackout is actually the first part of a single book that Willis had planned called All Clear. But the book became so long that it was split into two parts by her publisher. Willis makes it clear on her website that it should be considered one continuous book Blackout-All Clear. Well, that's great, but I have looked at the audiobook over and over again and I can find no reference to another book (All Clear) coming out, the fact that this is the first half of a single book or anything to indicate that Blackout is anything but a stand alone novel. Frankly, it never occurred to me that this 18 hour, 56 minute audiobook would only be the first half of a single novel. This is a pet peeve of mine - publishers not telling readers that the book is the first of a trilogy (or in this case, a duology) or is actually the book in the middle of a series of books. How hard it is to add that little bit of printing to a cover?

Connie Willis
I found the descriptions of World War II England to be wonderful - gritty but not maudlin. They are detailed enough that this history teacher found himself immersed in another world, along with the time travelling historians. The description of the evacuation at Dunkirk was as fine a bit of action writing as I have run across, especially for a book that is mostly about the mundane details of everyday life during a war of terror against the civilian population of England (as if air raids and torpedo bombs dropped on parachutes so as to maximize their damage can be mundane!).

I've already ordered All Clear.  When I've listened to all 23 hours of it I'll let you know...

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Blackout.

Reviewed on Feburary 6, 2011.

See my review of All Clear by clicking here.


  1. I found this description of the firebombing of London by Ernie Pyle. I thought it caught the reality of it all better than most:

    "You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

    ...the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night - London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.

    There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it... These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known."

  2. Been trying tom decide whether to add this one to the TBR list. Thanks for the review.