Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Alternate history/time travel
Rating: 4 pints of blood
The cover art is so busy I actually had to take a few minutes to figure out what's going on there. I think the focus is meant to be on the kneeling figure staring into water, but there are a billion other elements and they're all tossed together in a rather haphazard way, all mingled in dark colours. I can't really find it in me to be too hard on this cover, though, since the thing was published back when I was still in high school. Trends move on, thankfully.
When I asked for recommendations for something light and fun, starmetal_oak suggested To Say Nothing of the Dog. And since not only did it sound like a fun premise, but the library had an e-copy of it available (meaning I could read it without having to, like, go outside and talk to people), I went for it.
Sometime in the future, the formidable Lady Schrapnell has taken it into her head to restore Coventry Cathedral with as much accuracy as possible, which of course means sending her minions on multiple trips into the past, to a time before the cathedral was destroyed in the air raids of the 1940s. One of her minions, Ned Henry, has spent more time than he can account for looking for the Bishop's bird stump, an artifact that was significant to one of Lady Schrapnell's ancestors. The Lady Schrapnell is determined to have it as part of her recreation, and "can't" is not in her vocabulary.
As a result, Ned has been zipping back and forth between time periods that he's starting to lose his reason. The higher-ups at the lab agree to send him into the Victorian age to hide from Lady Schrapnell, so he can get a bit of rest to recover from the time-lag. Unfortunately, he's so time-lagged he doesn't hear the instructions he's given, which involve returning a cat that was accidentally brought into the future. The disappearance of this cat could very well cause an incongruity that will change all of history as they know it, and it's Ned's job --with the help of Verity, the young woman responsible for the cat-napping in the first place-- to restore all the significant time points to their natural points. Which isn't as easy as it sounds, because every time they try to fix something, it seems to fall apart, and now Lady Schrapnell's great-great-grandmother is fancying herself in love with the wrong man. If she marries the wrong person, she'll never have the children she's supposed to have, and history will keep crumbling from there.
To Say Nothing of the Dog doesn't just bend genres, it defies them. It's a mystery, it's science fiction, it's a historical comedy of manners, it's an homage to the works of several writers. Somehow Willis weaves everything together in a way that feels natural, and the whole thing is really a lot of fun. The well researched world is highly detailed, the humour has a British feel to it, and while the characters are over the top, they're at least caricatures of people you know.
Light on the science fiction elements, which serve mostly to push the plot forward rather than to provide a world for the characters to inhabit, the strength in here is Willis's ability to juggle several plotlines without letting any of them fade into the background or grow too fractured or confusing. Even when you know where the plotline is going (I knew who the mysterious Mr C was early on), seeing how they get there is worth turning the pages for. And, of course, there are all the literary references, the absurdity of the characters involved, and the clever self-awareness of all the genres the book has a toe-hold in. To say nothing of the eponymous dog. And the cat.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is available in mass market paperback.