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Eifelheim Blends Medieval Historical Fiction and Sci Fi

June 27, 2010

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
published by Tor Books October 17, 2006

Eifelheim opens in August, 1348 in the German village of Oberhochwald. As Dietrich, the parish priest, begins his daily rituals, the area is struck by a freak storm, and an electrical charge sparks a great fire. Believing this marks God’s final judgment, parishioners offer their confessions — disclosing sins that are already common knowledge in the small village.

In time, they realize an alien race, landed “from the stars,” has crashed in a nearby forest. The villagers struggle to fit this into their understanding of reality, which is based on an earth-centered universe — the visitors are first believed to be lepers or demons. On the other hand, the locals are predisposed to accept the existence of unusual creatures by their rich tradition of folklore. Their church is decorated with remnants of Greek mythology, like centaurs, and creatures with deep roots in German “pagan” tradition, including giants, elves, and kobolds. The church carvings also include wyverns, gargoyles, and basilisks. All these creatures blend seamlessly with images of their patron saint and the last supper.

Eventually the villagers become accustomed to the presence of the aliens, who use a device to communicate with the earthlings. Their intellect is equal — or superior — to humans, and they bring ideas that strike the reader as modern. For example, their language is woven from what appears to be binary code, and they recognize that tiny organisms cause disease. On the other hand, their sensibilities are very different. They are guided by instinct rather than empathy, and they have difficulty understanding the concept of charity or grasping the nuances of human language. Dietrich ponders whether the visitors have souls, sparking thought provoking questions about what it means to be “human.”

Meanwhile, battles loom, and Oberhochwald faces the judgment of other villagers and of powerful people in the church, who suspect them of harboring demons. The Black Plague, which is decimating the population throughout Europe, is closing in. These elements form a story that’s compelling and tragic.

In a parallel story, modern scholars Sharon and Tom grapple with challenging academic questions. Sharon, a physicist, is pondering the nature of time and space, closing in on an explanation of how someone might cross galaxies. Her lover Tom is a cliologist, engaged in a mathematical study of history. He is baffled by the disappearance of a medieval German village that vanished during the Black Plague and was never resettled.

Sharon and Tom’s relationship and academic quests are intriguing, but these characters are one dimensional. They seem to exist primarily as a plot device and as a way to dabble in a blend of real and fanciful quantum physics. The primary story — the tale of Oberhochwald — is much deeper and richer.

Dietrich, the parish priest, is at the heart of the story. He is a thoughtful man, well versed in science and logic; he had received a rich classical education and studied medicine, with some of the great minds of the time, in Paris. He is also a passionately dedicated, compassionate priest who hides dark secrets of his own. The village is vividly recreated, revealing the author’s many layers of knowledge about medieval manoral life and the science, philosophy, theology, and worldview of the European Middle Ages.

I was fascinated by this vibrant, thoughtful portrait of medieval Germany and by the interaction between their people and an alien species. The writing is beautiful — this author is really a master of his craft. And I enjoyed the vivid descriptive writing, which brought Oberhochwald to life, and the clever humor.

Here is a snippet:

They crossed over the millbrook bridge and took the road toward Bear Valley. The fallow fields lay on the left and the autumn fields on the right, the ground swelling higher and edging into the dirt track, pinching it until it seemed more trench than road. Hedgerows and briar bushes, meant to keep cows and sheep from wandering into the croplands, provided a bit of inadvertent shade to the walkers — and seemed veritable trees by reason of the height of the land from which they sprouted. The road, muddy through this stretch from a rivulet tributary to the millbrook, meandered first this way, then that, as slope and pitch dictated. Dietrich had wondered at times what sort of place Bear Valley might be that travelers seemed disinclined to go straight there.

And here’s a bit that made me smile:

Items had been appearing regularly in his Eifelheim file, all properly beribboned and pedigreed like dogs at a kennel show. Judy was a meticulous researcher. She had located monastic annals, uncovered manorial accounts, unearthed tantalizing odds and ends — the haphazardly preserved detritus of a vanished world … (a list of documents follows) … A levy dated 1289, in the Generallandesarchiv Baden, by Markgraf Hermann VII of Baden on Ugo Heyso of Oberhochwald for six-and-a-half foot soldiers and one-and-a-half horse soldiers …Why, the question of how a vassal might supply six-and-a-half soldiers to his liege is one to occupy a salon of Jesuits.

I found Eifelheim a challenging and very slow read. In a way, I appreciated the slow pace, as there was a wealth of interesting ideas to absorb. On the other hand, I sometimes found it tedious and had to prod myself to keep going. There were too many characters to get to know well, and the slow, methodical pondering of medieval philosophy weighed down the flow of the storytelling.

This novel shines with a wealth of fascinating knowledge and intriguing ideas, exploring quantum physics, human thought through the ages, good vs. evil, and variations on being “human.” But the storytelling, which should have been the heart of the book, often seemed to be held captive by the author’s desire to pack in so many ideas. It’s a book that many readers will find brilliant and others will find tedious; some — like me — will experience a bit of both. Nevertheless, this is a story I am unlikely to forget.

Read More Reviews: Claw of the Conciliator; A Good Stopping Point

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 7:07 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. But yes, it’s such a pity if an author tries to put too much in one book.

    The story reminds me (a little) of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, very enjoyable. No aliens, but time travel, to go to a village in 1348, when the plague is killing off the people there.

  2. June 27, 2010 9:00 pm

    Sounds fascinating — as a Medieval historian I might have to put aside my history glasses since no church in the mid 14th century would have so may pagan elements — perhaps a few centuries earlier πŸ˜‰

    No really, looks great!

    Oh, and an absolutely wonderful review!

    • June 28, 2010 12:39 am

      Hello and thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚ I didn’t know the “pagan” carvings on the church were an anachronism. It’s a bit disappointing, since I found that one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Maybe the church had been built a few centuries earlier? πŸ˜‰

  3. June 28, 2010 12:47 am

    Hahaha — it isn’t anachronistic if the carvings were 300-400 hundred years old — i.e. when the area was first converted but by the 14th century church reforms had pretty much standardized everything… SO, perhaps the church is old –anyway, new paintings were made frequently on the walls. But yes, I’ve been in hundreds of medieval churches from that time and I’ve NEVER seen a centaur or an elf — never. Obviously, I’ve seen some pretty bizarre interpretations of saint’s lives etc…

    The author is obviously taking liberties — but that’s fine….

    He

  4. June 28, 2010 8:52 pm

    “But the storytelling, which should have been the heart of the book, often seemed to be held captive by the author’s desire to pack in so many ideas. It’s a book that many readers will find brilliant and others will find tedious”- Thanks for the warning! I think I’d have to be in the right mood to tackle this one.

    • June 30, 2010 1:00 pm

      That’s true! When I started the book, I was fascinated, but toward the middle and the end, it seemed to drag.

  5. June 30, 2010 1:30 am

    Glad to see you liked Eifelheim – well at least aspects of it! It can be a challenging book, especially the parts about Sharon’s research which I just gave up on understanding, but fortunately that was a small part of the book.

    What did you think of the (alien) character of Hans? He was perhaps my favorite character.

    • June 30, 2010 12:49 pm

      I think Hans was my favorite character too. He was a link between the humans and the aliens, and he represented some of the best qualities of both races. πŸ™‚

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