Michael Flynn,
(Tor, 2006)

Eifelheim is the first book I've read by Michael Flynn that has very little to do with humanity's quest for the stars.

Ever since Flynn began his Firestar series in 1996, his novel-length fiction has focused on the "final frontier." And while I've enjoyed his complex, large-canvas explorations, it is refreshing to see this talented author spread his literary wings by remaining Earthbound for a change.

Eifelheim is certainly not your typical science-fiction novel. Set primarily in the years 1348 and 1349 in rural Germany, this is the story of the small town of Oberhochwald and its minister, Pastor Dietrich, as they confront the unknown. The unknown in this case comes in a pair of guises. First there is "the pest," better known to modern readers as the plague or Black Death, which is wiping out large segments of the population not too far removed from Oberhochwald. Second is a small group of strange-looking foreigners who some in the town believe to be demons.

The foreigners, while not from hell, are also not of this Earth. They hail from another star and have been stranded by the catastrophic failure of their spaceship. Dietrich, along with a pair of Oberhochwald residents, discovers the aliens hiding in the woods near the town and, after much soul searching, concludes the creatures are not demonic. And so begins the effort to understand the creatures and convert them to Christianity. Dietrich is greatly aided in this quest by an advanced translation device the aliens have brought with them.

Intermingled with this strange tale is a smaller component of the novel set in the present day that revolves around a pair of academics. Tom Schwoerin is a mathematical historian conducting research into the unexplained abandonment of the German town of Eifelheim in the mid 1300s. His partner, Sharon Nagy, a cosmologist, is exploring a radical theory in physics suggesting that the speed of light is not a constant. As the novel unfolds, the past and these two branches of research converge. Unfortunately, this portion of the tale is relegated to a backseat role as Flynn concentrates on painting an incredibly detailed picture of the historical component of the book.

The unevenness of the weighting of the novel, between its modern and historical aspects, is its only real failing. Certainly Flynn's writing is both engaging and accomplished. He manages a large cast of characters remarkably well. The list of characters, provided at the front of the book, sets out 50 names for the portion of the book set in the 1300s and another nine people for the modern chapters. Yet one rarely feels any confusion at a name mentioned in the text. Flynn deftly individualizes the array of townsfolk by providing the reader with details of occupations, interests and personality traits without overwhelming the plot. This does make for a rather dense read but rarely does one feel swamped by detail and longing for a return to the action.

But each time Flynn time shifts the reader is reminded of the secondary nature of the novel's contemporary component. This is a shame since the characters populating this sliver of the novel are deserving of greater exploration. Tom and Sharon make for an intriguing couple with plenty of texture, some of their rough edges grating against one another in a manner that spells trouble for their relationship. But enough of that, let's get back to the plague years....

Whatever its minor flaws, Eifelheim is a book that pushes Michael Flynn's science fiction in new directions and shows him to be a remarkable, multifaceted writer. One can only hope the book finds a sufficiently large audience that Flynn is encouraged to explore his range rather than simply returning to his comfort zone in space opera.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

1 August 2009

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