Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Eifelheim” by Michael Flynn
Nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award in 2007, Eifelheim by Michael Flynn follows two interconnected stories. One of the stories is that of Tom (a cliologist, which is basically a historian that employs statistics and mathematical models to study and predict the course of history) and his girlfriend, Sharon (a theoretical physicist). Through alternating chapters, the reader follows Tom as he obsessively tries to solve the mystery of Eifelheim, a small German village that was abandoned in the mid-fourteenth century and was never resettled. According to Tom’s cliometric research, it should have been resettled-- so why wasn’t it? The other and main storyline of the novel takes place in Eifelheim in 1348, which was then known as Oberhochwald, and follows Father Dietrich, the village priest of Oberhochwald. Dietrich is a scholarly man, educated in science and philosophy, which makes him often clash with the more simplistic minds of his fellow villagers. His life, however, is forever changed when he becomes the first point of contact between humanity and a group of aliens that crash land in the nearby forest. The novel is based on the novella of the same name, which was nominated for the Best Novella Hugo Award in 1987.
With Eifelheim, the author takes the fairly simple premise of first contact between aliens and medieval peasants and uses it to explore complex themes and to ask deep theological questions that are addressed as the novel progresses. The situation in which the main characters find themselves and the struggles that they face throughout the novel lead to the question, “Where is God during difficult times?” Additionally, the novel explores the idea of what it is to be human. The villagers of Oberhochwald have such drastically different mentalities from that of the average twenty-first century person that the reader may end up surprised by how alien they seem, and how human the aliens seem in comparison. Another interesting theme that shows up in the novel is that even those with similar ideologies often have variation in their perspectives. All the villagers in Oberhochwald are Christians, but they each have different beliefs and ideologies concerning their Christian faith, and these differences come to the forefront once the aliens show up. The novel also explores the importance of compassion and love towards others. Dietrich and the other villagers of Oberhochwald are faced with a choice with regards to the strange creatures that arrive in the forest: Either to show them love and kindness, or to offer them nothing but fearful hatred and discrimination. Each character makes his or her own choice for his or her own reasons, and the reader sees as the book progresses not only how damaging even one person’s prejudice and hatred can be, but also how impactful one person’s actions of love and compassion can be.
One thing that sets apart Eifelheim from other science fiction novels with a similar premise is how rich and immersive its medieval setting is. The author does such an excellent job of describing the setting so richly and vividly that the reader feels as if he is there in Oberhochwald. The real history that is incorporated into the story only enhances this. The author does a fantastic job of combining history and fiction in a way that is not only engaging, but also educational.
Eifelheim also boasts of a plethora of memorable, compelling, complex characters that all feel like real people. From the few modern day Tom and Sharon to the many villagers of Oberhochwald to the aliens themselves, every character feels separate from the others, and they all have complex motivations for their actions throughout the novel.
One last thing that should be noted about Eifelheim is its masterful use of dramatic irony and foreshadowing throughout. As Tom finds out more and more in his research, the reader becomes aware of the ultimate fate of Eifelheim (or Oberhochwald), and the medieval sections of the novel become increasingly tense as the reader is filled with anticipation. The modern chapters of the novel also provide information that only make sense after reading later medieval chapters, which makes for excellent foreshadowing that is not immediately noticeable.
Filled with riveting character interactions and containing a rich exploration into medieval life, Eifelheim is, at its core, an eclectic tale of hope in the face of hopelessness, of compassion in the face of prejudice, and of unity in the face of division. It is a must-read for lovers of science fiction and historical fiction, as well as for those looking for a touching and inspiring character-driven story that they will be thinking about long after they have finished reading it.