by Michael Flynn
Cover Artist: Steven Hunt
Review by Andrew Brooks
Tor Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319104
Date: 13 November 2007 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Eifelheim is quite an ambitious novel; one part historical fiction, one part hard science fiction, with a narrative that jumps between the present and a German village in the fourteenth century. The village, originally called Oberhochwald but later renamed Eifelheim, is the site of first contact between man and alien in Michael Flynn's latest. Throw in superstitious peasants and a dash of the Black Plague, and you could expect that it's going to be one of the more interesting first contact tales. It's certainly unique, and the amount of detail Flynn pours into his historical setting and characters amazes. I haven't read a book more in tune with the author's chosen time period since Gary Jennings' Aztec. But Eifelheim is not a book for everyone. There's some good stuff here, especially if you're interested in both subjects, however the two mashed together didn't work all that well for me.
The present day thread follows Tom and Sharon, a couple working in separate types of research who discover that their studies may actually have more to do with each other than they first thought. The book focuses more on fourteenth century Germany than it does this scientist odd-couple (their arguments got eye rolls from me) and that's a good thing. The medieval characters are so fully fleshed out in the book that when I got to the chapters dealing with Tom and Sharon I felt as if something was missing. I understand their purpose in the book, but I felt nothing for them other than that I suspect any real couple that bickered as much as they would have long since called it quits. Also, for a historian, Tom came across as being very ignorant when it came to actually doing research. Of course this was simply a way for Flynn to bring in another character to help Tom, but it irked me that he seemed at times to be so ignorant.
As I've said, the reason I felt so blasé towards Tom and Sharon is because Flynn paints Dietrich and the other villagers of Eifelheim in such vivid strokes. Father Dietrich's faith is tested by the discovery of the aliens (he and the villagers actually believe them to be demons) and I felt wholly invested here, in the priest's struggles. His description of the aliens is fascinating and, at times, humorous. The chapter in which he mistakenly believes the aliens' translator is actually a box with a brownie (fairy) trapped inside was funny and oddly touching. Dietrich is a very likable character, and one in which Flynn both examines faith and the societal norms and customs of 14th century Germany. There are the usual missteps and revelations as in other novels of this type, and because of the setting those work in different ways so that they are somewhat refreshing. I won't give away too much, but the ending definitely makes sense given all that came before it.
I found Eifelheim to be a mixed bag. That's not to say the book was bad, just that some parts were quite good while others seemed tiresome. I'm glad I finished the book, as I do feel that I learned a lot about the historical period, but I also feel the need to warn other readers that it requires a lot of patience at times.