Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Michael Flynn’s novel Eifelheim, and expansion of his earlier story of the same title, takes a look at the secret history of a small fourteenth-century German village and the efforts of a modern day historian to unravel those secrets. While the earlier story was set in the modern period, the majority of the novel follows Pastor Dietrich, a well-educated pastor living in a sort of exile as pastor in the backwater town’s St. Catherine’s Church.
From the very beginning of the novel, Flynn reveals that something is going to happen to make the town of Eifelheim disappear, although neither his historian, Tom Schwoerin nor the reader have any clue as to the cause of the town’s disappearance and the resulting evil reputation of the area. As Tom works to unravel the clues in the historical records, the majority of the novel is set in the events leading up to Eifelheim's eventual disappearance. Yes, the reader knows it is going to happen, but not how. More importantly, the reader is pulled into the lives of Dietrich and his parishioners, as well as the strange Krenken who live in the woods outside Eifelheim.
The pacing of the two portions of the story are quite different. Even though Tom’s progress into the loss of Eifelheim is not rapid, the modern portions of the story are a relatively fast pace, even as they are separated by numerous chapters set in the fourteenth century. By comparison, the pace of the mediaeval portion is much more lackadaisical, indicative of the slower pace of living in that period. Furthermore, and more importantly, Flynn gets the sentiments of his characters correct in the Mediaeval period. Their lives are influenced by the period in which they live without Flynn interpolating an excessive amount of anachronistic behavior into his characters.
One of the key features in the story are the Krenken, who are first believed to be outlaws living in the woods, then lepers, and eventually something else entirely. Seen through the lens of what his religion and philosophy have taught him, Dietrich has a complex and nuanced view of the Krenken. While other authors have written stories which focus on beings similar to the Krenken in this sort of setting, Flynn handles the material in a manner which not only is believable, but makes the situation his own. Even as Dietrich comes to view the Krenken as people, he has his own concerns since the Krenken so differ from what the Church teaches about creatures with souls.
The Krenken's souls, of course, are important, for just as the reader knows that the villagers of Eifelheim are doomed to disappear, it is clear to the readers that the fate of the Krenken is tied to the fortunes of Eifelheim. Another strength of the story is that the Krenken and the Eifelheimers view their fates in different, yet simultaneously realistic manners. It is the interplay between these two groups that forms the majority of the novel, and is the most satisfying.
While the mixture of pacing makes sense in the book and generally works, the long passages focusing on the inhabitants of Eifelheim tend to upstage the modern sections to such an extent that Tom's story almost seems like an afterthought, despite being the original basis for the novel (the work got its start as a 1986 story of the same name in Analog). While the modern sections of the novel may not have the glamour of the Mediaeval sections, they provide an interesting look at how history can be (and has been) treated as a science by various historians.
With its feel of fantasy in the Mediaeval portions of the novel as well as the scientific underpinning of the entire novel, Eifelheim is a book which has something for everyone. Flynn's characters are well-realized and the influence of their cultures and belief systems are carefully formulated. Flynn has long been publishing excellent novels and stories, and Eifelheim is another in his series of successes which should help in garner additional readers.
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