There's another, shorter storyline interspersed with the medieval tale: this deals with a theoretical physicist and a historian whose work leads them to some interesting discoveries about the events that took place in the distant past.
The book moves along at a relatively sedate pace, with a lot of intellectual and ethical discussion and debate. The medieval sections are interesting, if not gripping. I think Flynn has done a good job here of portraying the very different world view of the villagers, nobles, and priests in this distant time and place.
Unfortunately that can make for some very dense and confusing reading, in particular when the main character, a well-educated priest named Dietrich who has a dark secret about his past, gets into discussions with the aliens about certain principles of physics and natural philosophy. I confess to reading a few of these sections several times without ever having a full grasp of the points being made, and I minored in the History of Science and Technology. However, I recognized or followed enough of the arguments to be impressed with Flynn's scholarship. He chose to try to describe these topics in a way that the characters of that period would have been most likely to approach them, rather than aiming for a more anachronistic approach that might have been easier to follow. Like I said, it can be rough going, but Flynn's careful and often clever use of language is impressive when dealing with such esoteric subjects.
Flynn has also created a number of very interesting, nicely developed medieval characters and does a similar job for a couple of the aliens. Their interactions seem believable and he generates enough empathy for certain characters that I felt sad at some of the fates that befell them.
The modern chapters of the book, which alternate between the points of view of Sharon (the physicist) and Tom (the historian), are rather awful in my view. The problems are manifold:
- Sharon and Tom are annoying, largely oblivious characters whom I cared nothing about. Sharon is just incomprehensible most of the time and utterly unlikeable the rest of the time. Tom is a doofus. Not a lovable doofus, just a doofus. Plus, he alienated me as a historian (see below).
- It is very hard to follow the gist of anything that they are talking or arguing about when it comes to their fields of inquiry or even their personal relationship. They are said to have been together a long time, but I have no inkling why, because in addition to not understanding each other, they don't seem to like or respect each other much.
- I went to graduate school in history. I have family and friends teaching in history departments around the country. I have never met a historian like Tom, who is completely illiterate in "narrative" history, obsessed with statistics and models above all else, and who manages to constantly drop foreign phrases into the middle of his speech. I heard of one such person, but even meeting him I found he could hold a conversation about historical events without sounding like a mathematician. So Tom failed the credibility test for me.
- Add it all up, and the Now chapters add practically nothing to the book until the very end. They don't really move the plot, they don't make you care more about the characters, they don't provide any action, and they aren't very interesting.
Overall I think the novel is worth a read if you have a little time and are ready to stretch your mind a bit. It isn't long, but it was very slow going in places for me. I honestly think you can skim the "now" chapters (thankfully they are short and there are only 10 in all), except for the final one, Anton. You will miss very little that couldn't be summed up thusly:
- There's a village that disappeared during the Black Death and was never rebuilt, though historical models suggest that it should have been.
- There's an annoying physicist with an theory that eventually and painfully morphs into a confusing explanation for faster than light travel through unusual means.
- The researchers eventually figure out that the missing town is where the aliens landed and that it was never resettled because of the events that occurred there in the past. There is an obscure record of some of the alien technology hidden in some of the manuscripts from the period that ties into the annoying physicist's research and provides a clue that the legends about the abandoned town may have been true.