To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis 4.5 stars, just to be clear.

Part time travel adventure, part comedy of manners and part mystery, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a little bit of everything I love about books.

To Say Nothing of the Dog takes its name (and much of its sensibility) from the famous novella by Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. This choice is not incidental, but neither is it overwhelmingly important to the novel as a whole. The story is told through the eyes of Ned Henry, a time travelling historian in the not-too-distant future, as we witness his adventures into the late Victorian past. Poor Ned is overworked and just looking for a bit of a rest. His employer, the excessively demanding and ridiculously overbearing (and appropriately named) Lady Shrapnell, is looking to collect the various “treasures” that once resided in Coventry Cathedral in order to complete a restoration project, including a mysterious object known as “the bishop’s bird stump.” With no concern for the health of her staff or the laws of time, Shrapnell runs her team into the ground, and Ned into an advanced case of time-lag, the mind-muddling result of excessive time travel. Think jet lag but about 100 times worse and 1,000 times more entertaining. Prescribed two weeks of rest to recover but perpetually hounded by Lady Shrapnell, Ned is given the chance to travel back to the late Victorian countryside for a bit of R&R. However, Ned is no expert in the chosen time, so naturally hilarity ensues. Of course, time travel is never so simple as a quick jaunt into the past, so Ned must confront a tangle of time related difficulties while also trying to maneuver through the intricacies of straight-laced Victorian society.

Time travel is a notoriously difficult narrative tool to handle properly. Even the most phenomenally plotted story can collapse under the weight of disbelief a slip in mechanics can create. The key is to focus on the most important “rules” and to try to stick to them assiduously, while simultaneously avoiding the tendency to bog everything down in too much detail. Connie Willis has built a career and reputation on her ability to render time travel with just the right amount of detail and vagary to make her mechanics credible without overshadowing the plot with technical terms and excessive exposition. Granted, I’m making this statement based on this particular book and hearsay, but I stand by it. Willis’ time travel mechanics are simple, while their implications are much more complex. In Dog, the system is gradually revealed, rather than dumped on the reader first thing. This is beneficial in keeping things simple, but at the same time causes an occasional head scratching when an unexplained technical term is used. Everything is clarified in due time, however, so it’s not really any hindrance to the story.

The heart of the story isn’t really the time travelling anyway. Most of the fun comes in the form of the characters Ned meets as he stumbles and blunders his way to a not-very-successful rest. A jaunt down the Thames soon introduces Ned to a myriad of famous Victorian types, including a poetry-spouting undergrad, an eccentric professor and a stiff-upper-lipped butler, to say nothing of the dog. Luckily for Ned, he also meets a fellow time traveler, the brilliant and beautiful Verity, who guides him through the social faux-pas minefield that was Victorian England. Verity is in 1888 on a mission, and when Ned becomes entangled as well, his rest goes right out the window and the trip becomes a mad dash to save all of time while still maintaining a stiff Victorian veneer.

I really loved this book. It’s so difficult not to go on and on about every little fascinating reference to Victorian culture and literature, and every brilliant twist in the time travel narrative, but the enjoyment is in the gradual reveal of detail, so I don’t want to give anything away here. I will say that, while it’s not really necessary, you may enjoy this book even more if you read Three Men in a Boat first. Also, as much as I found to love in this book, I had some difficulty with Ned at first. As a narrator he’s well up to the task, but as a character he could have used a bit more fleshing out. We never really know what he looks like, or much about him at all, other than the fact that he is a historian and not very well versed in Victorian history. Essentially, Ned plays the straight man, observing and reflecting the comedy going on around him, so once this is accepted the story rolls along quite nicely. Now, in the finest tradition of “show, don’t tell,” we do learn that Ned is very capable and intelligent by observing his reactions and puzzle solving abilities, rather than hear him go on about himself, and I think this is what finally won me over in his favor.

If you like time travel, P.G. Wodehouse, Victorian novels or any combination of the three, this would be the book for you.

(Warning: If you have never read Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and plan on doing so, read it before picking this up. It gives the whole twist away. I know I shouldn’t be peeved about spoilers over 100 years old, but I was.)