Review: All Clear by Connie Willis (5-stars)

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All Clear is the second part of the book that began with Connie Willis’ Blackout (see my review here) which came out early in 2010. Blackout/All Clear are a single book that was broken into two parts; they are not part of a series and it is impossible to read All Clear without first having read Blackout for the same reason that it would be impossible to read the second half of Tom Sawyer without having read the first half. I mention this because All Clear begins right where Blackout left off, smack in the middle of things and someone coming to the book thinking it is an independent volume would be in for an unsettling surprise.

That said, I worried that it would be difficult to keep up the wonderfully complex historical/time-travel story that Willis began in Blackout, and I was delighted that she managed to make the second half of the book even better than the first.

The story takes place in the same universe as Connie Willis’ brilliant Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Firewatch. It is 2060 and time travel allows Oxford historians to go back in time to witness events first hand and better fill in and understand the historical record. In Blackout/All Clear, historians are busy researching World War II, in particularly the Blitz of London. However, some strange things have begun happening as historians are sent back in time. “Slippage”–which is supposed to prevent historians from going to divergence points–are growing larger so that historians are coming through days, weeks, even months before or after they are scheduled to arrive. And in Blackout, we learn that the drops are no longer opening to allow the historians to return to their time in 2060.

The story is a rich in historical detail from the era. Reading it, I felt like I was living through the Blitz. Willis does a remarkable job of evoking the terror of the nightly bombings, while mixing in the humor the people of London needed to survive. The characters we follow through All Clear (there are mainly three of them) become attached not only to the struggle of the people of London, but they also experience their fears, both directly (through the bombings) and indirectly, in not knowing the outcome, sacrificing themselves for victory over Hitler.

Time travel plays a larger role in All Clear than it did in Blackout as we discover that a mystery is unfolding surrounding the slippages and why they are happening. The time travel plot alone is brilliantly complex. I used to think The Time Traveler’s Wife had the most complex time-travel plot I’d ever come across, but Blackout/All Clear beats it.

When I finished Blackout in March, I could not wait to start All Clear, which came out in early October. I wasn’t able to start All Clear right away, but once I started it, I was not able to put the book down, reading almost all day for nearly two days, breathless at the end of each chapter. The characters in the book become as close as old friends and you experience their joys and pains along with them. ¬†And as the book unfolds and the mysteries are revealed, the sense of wonder, the sense of awe at the entire literary construction is stunning.

It will be interesting to see how Blackout/All Clear ends up on the Nebula ballot: as a single volume or as two separate books. I’ve already nominated Blackout for a Nebula award, but if I could, I would nominate and vote for the combined, complete work. It was by far the best thing I’ve read in many, many years.