PhoenixFalls edited the summary of Doomsday Book Saturday, September 25, 2010.
Kivrin Engle, a young historian specializing in medieval history, persuades her reluctant instructor, Professor James Dunworthy, and the authorities running the project to send her to England in the early 14th century. This period had previously been thought too dangerous for historians, particularly an inexperienced young woman. She will be the first historian to visit the period, and is confident that she is well prepared for what she will encounter.
Moments after sending Kivrin to the 14th century, Badri Chaudhuri, the technician who set the time travel coordinates for Kivrin's trip, collapses suddenly, an early victim of a deadly new influenza epidemic which severely disrupts the university and eventually leads to the entire city being quarantined. Infected with the same influenza despite her enhanced immune system, Kivrin falls ill as she arrives in the past. She awakens after several days of fever and delirium at a nearby manor, whose residents have nursed her. Unfortunately, the move has caused her to lose track of where the "drop point" is; she must return to the exact location where she landed when she arrived, and at the exact time when the gateway opens, in order to return home.
She discovers many inconsistencies in what she "knows" about the time: the Middle English she learned is different from the local dialect, her clothing is too fine, and she is far too clean. She can also read and write, skills unusual even for the educated men of the time and rare among women. As nuns are the only women commonly possessing these skills, some family members conclude Kivrin has fled her convent and plan to return her to the nearest convent. She fakes amnesia, afraid the background story she originally planned out would have similar inconsistencies.
The narrative switches between Kivrin in the fourteenth century and 2054/2055 Oxford during the influenza epidemic. At parallel points in their respective narratives, Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy realize that she has been sent to England at the wrong time as a result of the technician's illness: she has arrived during the Black Death epidemic in England in 1348, more than 20 years later than her intended arrival. As Dunworthy tries desperately to get her back, the medical staff of the 21st century are dealing with the flood of critical cases and those who would help him are falling ill and dying, including his good friend, Doctor Mary Ahrens, who dies even as she tries to save the other influenza victims. At last, in desperation, he arranges with Badri to send himself back in time to rescue Kivrin.
In the Middle Ages, Kivrin can only watch while all the people she has come to know die from the Black Death, the last being Father Roche, the priest who found her when she was sick, and brought her to the manor to be cared for. Father Roche insisted on staying with his parishioners, despite Kivrin's attempts to arrange an escape from the plague, as he feels it his duty to care for them although it may mean his own death. As Roche lies dying in the chapel, he reveals that he was near the drop site when Kivrin came through, and misinterpreted the circumstances of her arrival (shimmering light, condensation, and a young woman appearing out of thin air) as God delivering an angel to help during the mysterious illness which is sweeping through England. He dies still believing that she is God's messenger to him and his congregation, while Kivrin comes to appreciate his selfless devotion to his work, and to God. As she attempts to dig his grave, her rescuers, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin (the adventurous great-nephew of Doctor Mary Ahrens), arrive from the future. They barely recognize her: her hair is cropped short (from when she was sick with the flu), she is wearing a boy's jerkin, and she is covered in dirt and blood from tending to the sick and dying. The three return to 21st century England shortly after New Year's Day.