Let me start you out with a warning I wish that I got before reading Connie Willis's latest: Blackout is half a novel. Not part one of a two-parter; literally the first half of a novel whose concluding half, All Clear, will not be available until mid-October 2010.
So if you're one of those crazy readers who likes an ending for your novels, you might want to wait until All Clear is released and buy them both together. That way you won't hit the non-ending in Blackout, look frantically around for pages you might have missed, then systematically tear out your own hair. Not that I'm bitter.
Strange and frustrating publishing decisions aside, Blackout is an amazing half of a book. Set in the same universe as Willis's The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout opens with an extended farcical chase section set in 2060 as three historians gather items and knowledge they need to study the war when they head back to 1940s Britain. One student attempts to head back to the Crusades so that he can catch up in age to the historian he has a crush on. Willis excels at this light-hearted style, and certainly drops plenty of hints that all is not well with the equipment everyone will be using to travel back in time.
But the time that we spend in 2060 feels like an extended introduction. The book doesn't really take off until our three historians make their trips and each discover that something has gone slightly wrong.
Polly, Merope, and Michael are supposed to be observers and nothing more, but as each realizes their portal home doesn't work, they become entwined with the people they meet. One worries that they changed history, which could have devastating consequences.
Willis shines in the descriptions of wartime Britain and especially the people experiencing it. The detail is astounding, yet doesn't draw you away from the story. The characters, from the old gentleman running his barely-afloat ship to help at Dunkirk to the blitz shelter-folks who become a second family to Polly, to Alf and Binnie, two of the most hilariously horrible children to ever steal your heart, are amazing.
You can't fault Polly or Merope or Michael for not following protocol, because you wouldn't be able to ignore these people either.
As the story halts, Michael, Merope, and Polly find one another in London and realize that whatever problem stranded them in war-torn Britain is more serious than they thought. They face the fact that rescue may not be coming.
Despite its cliffhanger of an ending, Blackout is an engaging and suspenseful read. I have no doubt that when All Clear is released, Willis will give us a satisfying ending.