Fire Watch by Connie Willis
Fire Watch is a short story, so this will be a short review. I read it as a sort of “proof of concept” before moving onto any of Willis’ other (longer, hugely award-winning) books in the same series. The concept is this: in the middle of the 21st century, time travel has been invented, and historians at Oxford University use it to conduct field research in areas of historical interest.
The protagonist in story, Bartholomew, is a history student coming to the end of his studying, and has what amounts to his final exam, referred to as a “practicum”. This takes the form of a trip into the past to a period and place deemed to be relatively safe(ish). In this instance, Bartholomew gets sent to be part of the Fire Watch at St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz in World War 2. It says something that Oxford determines a placed that is being bombed (a lot) to be relatively safe.
The story is told mainly in the style of sort of verbal diary entries from Bartholomew. That’s an effective way of telling the story, as it’s reflective of how the protagonist should be recording things: reflectively, rather than in the moment, but offering enough immediacy to keep things very interesting. There are two main thrusts of the plot – Bartholomew’s conflict with the commander of the Fire Watch, who he begins to suspect is a Nazi sympathiser with plans to let the Cathedral burn down, and Bartholomew’s efforts to save a girl who visits the Cathedral.
Neither plot is particularly earth shattering, but then in a short story I wasn’t really expecting it to be. Bartholomew’s increasing paranoia and obsessiveness provides an interesting escalation throughout though.
I’m not too bothered that this was quite a light, short book without much to really say about it. Like I said, it was more a proof of concept, and I liked both the concept and the writing style, so I’ll definitely be checking out Willis’ weightier books on time-travelling historians in the future. Although, when I check them out it will be the present, and the time-travelling historians will be in the past.
Why you should read it: It’s short and pretty interesting, and a good taster for hopefully a more satisfying longer book.
Why you shouldn’t read it: It’s nothing more than pretty interesting.
Next up: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence