The purpose of history is to explain the present--to say why the world around us is the way it is. History tells us what is important in our world, and how it came to be.
-- Michael Crichton, Timeline
I'll admit it right up front: I don't like historical fiction much. When authors are sloppy in their research, I find the inaccuracies distracting enough to ruin what might otherwise be a good story. But even when the representation of the past is largely authentic (and to be fair, there are some extraordinary authors who really know their stuff), fictionalization makes history much less enjoyable for me. What can I say? I'm a hopeless history buff. Every minute I spend reading fiction is a minute I'd rather spend learning historical fact.
Here's another confession: I'm not a big fan of Michael Crichton. I do find good science fiction fascinating (a genre that pushes the edges of "what if" is as mind-expanding for me as a scholarly discipline that asks "what really happened"). And Crichton isn't a bad writer, but none of his works has ever made me sit up and say, "Wow!" While his ideas can be intriguing, they all seem to make much better movies. Whether this is because his style lacks the immediacy of film or because I have to spend less time plowing my way through the story I have yet to decide.
So, as you can well imagine, I was predisposed to despise Crichton's semi-historical novel Timeline.
The Up Side
Surprise! I liked it. The premise was appealing, the action was gripping, and the ending was dramatically satisfying. Some of the cliffhangers and segues were very nicely executed. While there wasn't a single character I could identify with or even like very much, I was pleased to see some character development as a result of the adventure. The good guys grew more likable; the bad guys were really bad.
Best of all, the medieval setting was mostly accurate, and well-realized to boot. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read, especially for those who are unfamiliar or only somewhat familiar with the Middle Ages. (Unfortunately, this is a rather large percentage of the population.) Crichton effectively points up some common misconceptions about medieval life, presenting the reader with a vivid picture that is at times much more attractive, and at other times much more frightening and repellent, than that generally presented to us in popular fiction and film.
Of course there were errors; I can't imagine an error-free historical novel. (Fourteenth-century people larger than modern folk? Not likely, and we know this from the skeletal remains, not surviving armor.) But for the most part, Crichton really managed to bring the Middle Ages alive.
The Down Side
I did have some problems with the book. Crichton's usual technique of expanding the cutting-edge technology of today into a believable science-fiction premise fell sadly short. He spent too much effort trying to convince the reader that time travel could be possible, then used a theory that struck me as internally inconsistent. Though there may be an explanation for this apparent flaw, it was never addressed clearly in the book. I suggest you avoid a close examination of the technology and accept it as a given in order to enjoy the story more.
Furthermore, the characters who were surprised by the realities of the past were people who should have known better. The general public may think the Middle Ages were uniformly filthy and dull; but encountering examples of good hygiene, splendid interior decor or swift swordplay shouldn't surprise a medievalist. This makes the characters not very good at their jobs or, worse, it presents the erroneous impression that historians don't bother with the details of material culture. As an amateur medievalist, I find this rather annoying. I'm sure professional historians would be downright insulted.
Still, these are aspects of the book that are easy to overlook once the action is truly underway. So get ready for an exciting ride into history.
Since this review was written in March of 2000, Timeline was made into a feature-length, theatrical-release movie, directed by Richard Donner and starring Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly and David Thewlis. It is now available on DVD. I've seen it, and it's fun, but it hasn't broken into my list of Top 10 Fun Medieval Films.
Also . . .
Be sure to check out About Archaeology Guide K. Kris Hirst's take on the book.