Light comic SF.
As with pretty much all time-travel stories (perhaps my least favourite SF genre), there’s a lot of flapdoodle around how this can work within its own parameters. Willis does better than some trying to keep this in some sort of check, and this notion of history sort of protecting itself is workable…ish. What is defined as historically significant by this semi-godlike force is a bit laughably tied to the things I suspect Willis studied at school (so Hastings, Waterloo, the Battle of Britain are all vital, but inventions, social movements, the arts, and countries other than Britain … not so much). As I say, she does OK with this, but I think the pages devoted to solving the mystery are the least interesting.
I most enjoyed the excuse this gave Willis to throw her characters into other historical contexts, although these are pretty much limited to the vaguest of nearish future (2057), a bit of a cameo of Coventry being bombed in WW2, and the bulk of the book – late 1800s Oxford. Here she is very comfortable playing with impressions of the time. She’s done some research, but if you want real flavour of the period, you just have to read a book from one of the many contemporary authors. More for Willis it’s an enjoyable setting to have a decent go at some of her own Wodehouse-type aristocrats and servants, and she’s cavalier about rigorous authenticity if is suits her story (how much time do our hero and heroine spend alone together – particularly at night in his bedroom! – when we’ve been told that was socially unacceptable at the time?). I suspect I would have enjoyed this more simply as a social comedy, but the SF element opens her up to more readers (myself included – her name popped up as I am working through a list of dual Hugo/Nebula winners). I suspect some of her success is competing in a field where characters, wit and dialogue are often sacrificed to ‘what ifs’ and action – as a capable stylist she doesn’t have to make the sacrifice. That being said, the Hugo/Nebula thing seems a bit over the top: she’s capable in all areas (style, SF, period), but doesn’t excel in any. Again, the award would be recognising that this is unusual.
The vibe is refreshingly wholesome. The characters are not hardboiled or angst-ridden, and can be enjoyably eccentric in their pre-WW1 leisured aristocratic bubble. This didn’t rock my world, but I enjoyed the batty oxford don, and the capably painted interactions. And it definitely was a nice palate cleanser after all this dark crime stuff I’ve been immersing myself in lately.