Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Praise of Connie Willis' Time-Travel Romantic Suspense Novels

Connie Willis is considered to be a writer of science fiction rather than romance. She has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, all of which are classified as science fiction. Two of her Hugo-award-winning novels -- To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear (a single novel published in two volumes) should also be classified as romantic suspense novels, in my opinion.

Willis began writing at a time when there was a great deal of separation between the science fiction and romance genres. The recent growth of the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres has really bridged that gap. Romantic suspense, both historical and contemporary, has also become a popular genre. Although I doubt that Connie Willis would wish to be classified as a romance author, she has often included romance subplots in her works, particularly the light, comic stories that are clearly inspired by the screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age.

There were no romantic elements in her first two works about time-travelling Oxford historians from the late 21st century. The short story Fire Watch first used the premise to tell a story about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people to save St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz. Willis developed her time travel universe more fully in the poignant novel Doomsday Book, about a grad student who observes the horrors of the Black Death in a much more up-close-and-personal way than she had anticipated. That book is beautifully written, and it always makes me cry.

As if to cheer up the unsuspecting fans who found Doomsday Book too emotionally wrenching, Willis followed it up with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a delightful romp through Victorian England (with side trips to the Middle Ages and World War II) following historians on a quest to locate a legendarily hideous piece of decorative art (which is superficially compared to the Albert Memorial in style). This book has a fully realized hero and heroine who fall in love during the course of the story and have a happily-ever-after at the end. The story includes many familiar romance novel elements, like instant attraction (attributed to the side effects of excessive time travel) and a Big Misunderstanding. There is also a secondary romance involving a naïve young woman who seems very much like the heroines of Old School romance novels, just waiting for the hero to mansplain the world to her so she can grow into a mature woman. The whole book is fun and tongue-in-cheek and very skillfully written. I must admit that I rather like the Albert Memorial myself; I have included photos so you can judge for yourself.

Willis' tour-de-force, in my opinion, is her most recent novel, Black Out/All Clear.  It was published in two separate volumes (released several months apart), but it is really a single novel. She returns to World War II with a new group of historians studying under the same Oxford professor. Willis is really in firm control of her universe and skillfully misdirects the reader with complex flashbacks (some of which take place at a future date but in one character's past) and multiple POVs. It does not seem like a romance at first. The suspense elements really take center stage. By the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that the romance really drove much of the plot and was the primary motivation for the eventual resolution. There is also a sweet secondary romance with its own HEA. Like Doomsday Book, there is some tragic loss, and you will need the Kleenex. There are also comic moments, and Willis takes another opportunity to dis the Albert Memorial ("Christ -- is that a buffalo?!")

I don't want to include any spoilers, because I want to recommend that everyone read these books.  I read Black Out/All Clear a second time while it was all still fresh in my memory, because I wanted to see if Willis had continuity errors with her complex chronology. I was impressed for different reasons on the second reading, knowing everything the characters knew at each point in the story. I also realized that the heroine was attracted to the hero much earlier than I first assumed, which put an entirely different spin on the primary romance.

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