Completed 1/29/2015, Reviewed 1/31/2015
Connie Willis’ second of the Oxford Time Travel Series once again has hapless time traveling historians trapped in difficult predicaments by the malfunctioning net and surrounded by single-minded characters who barely let the protagonist get a word in edgewise. This time, this comedy of manners format is truly a comedy, crossing the style of Oscar Wilde with the formulaic mysteries of Agatha Christie set in the middle of some fairly complex time travel dilemmas. This was my second reading of the book, and I enjoyed it far more than my first time, when I was distracted by a painful back, impending lay-offs, and the deep longing to be back in the epic fantasy world of the novel I had just finished. This time, I thoroughly reveled in the chaos of time travel mishaps and time travelers who just can’t seem to get a break.
“Dog” centers around Ned Henry, an Oxford historian who is one of the many poor souls being ordered around the past by Lady Shrapnell, an extremely wealthy woman funding the struggling history department. The condition of her endowment is that the department throws all their resources into her projects, this one being the recreation of the Coventry Church destroyed in WWII. With her mantra “God is in the details”, she sends the historians back in time to identify all aspects of the church so that she can create a perfect replica. Unfortunately, Henry has jumped into the past so many times trying to find the bishop’s bird stump, he is suffering from serious time lag. To give him a break and hide him from Lady Shrapnell, the department’s director sends him to the late 1800s to get two weeks rest. Of course, a series of mishaps throws him into the center of a frustrating mystery of cats, missed meetings, spiritualists, absent-minded professors, and the very first jumble sale, to say nothing of the dog.
I think the first time I read this book, I was annoyed by the stuffy single-minded upper class who were the bane of Ned’s existence. This time, I was able to revel more in the satire and appreciate the construction of the characters. I was also much more caught up in the mystery. And even though I had read the book before, I was surprised by the simple ending. But what makes this story so fun is the roller coaster ride through the stuffy, pushy upper class bozos of the Victorian Age that completely distract you from that end. Ned is a wonderfully likeable sad sack who just can’t get a break. But somehow, he suffers through the self-important, over-entitled buffoons and the misfirings of the time travel net to piece together the miasma of clues to solve the mystery of the bird stump and save the future.
What really amazed me this time was the complexity Willis’ time travel chaos. I think it helped that I’ve read all the Oxford novels now and this was my second reading of this one. Like Lady Shrapnell’s motto, the details are what make this book amazing. It’s the butterfly effect taken to the extreme: one seemingly minor action having major repercussions for the future. And it speaks to Willis’ genius how she can flesh out the chaos into plot, theme, and characterization, and conflict.
“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a great book in a great series. Being a comedy, it doesn’t have the emotional impact of her earlier “Doomsday Book”, but it is masterful fun. It is one of the few comedies to win the Hugo Award. I highly recommend this novel. If you decide to read it, I recommend starting with “Doomsday” though. While each novel is self-contained, the chaos of the malfunctioning time travel net gets more complex, and having the exposure to it in the publishing order helps with the understanding of it. And reading them in order of drama, comedy, long drama, makes for a better appreciation of the progression of the chaos. Four out of five stars.