"Baudolino" is a fanciful and mythical novel by Umberto Eco, set in the twelfth century Europe and the Near East. Eco, best known for his masterwork "The Name of the Rose," returns with "Baudolino" to the theme medieval Europe, albeit of somewhat earlier date. The eponymous protagonist of this novel finds himself adopted by an accident by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, which sets him on the path of high adventure. During Baudolino's years of study in Paris, he befriends a motely crew of thinkers, poets, and adventurers, and with their help conjures a plan to discover the land of mythical Prester John, who supposedly lives somewhere far in the East. Most of the second half of the novel concerns the journey of Baudolino and his companions. Most of the stories in here are told from the Baudolino's perspective, as he narrates them to Niketas Choniates, a famous twelfth century Byzantine historian, whose life he had saved during the sacking of Constantinople.
Frederick I and Niketas Choniates are just a couple of actual historical characters who appear in "Baudolino" under very unusual and highly fabricated circumstances. Eco knows his history very well, and is able to push the plausibility into the lacunae of our knowledge and fill them up with fanciful interconnected narrative. In the latter part of the book, though, he almost completely abandons any appeal to realism, and takes the reader on a wild ride through some of the most fantastic and imaginative scenes taken from the medieval myth and lore.
Both readers and the literary critics have not in general been impressed by any of the Eco's fictional works, with the notable exception of the "Name of the Rose." That book had propelled Eco well into the stratosphere of modern literary celebrities, and he's been able to capitalize on that reputation for the better part of the last three decades. Unfortunately, "Baudolino" does nothing to repair the generally low impression that Eco's later novels had left. Despite the dazzling displays of erudition and mastery of medieval history and lore, the novel doesn't have a sense of unified and coherent narrative. The characters are very colorful, but they lack the depth of emotion and are not very convincing as actual flash and blood individuals. It's almost as if Eco had tried to develop every character around a particular idea. This can sometimes work in a short story, but in order for the reader to care about them over the course of a long novel, they needed to poses a lot more verisimilitude to the actual human beings.
Parts of the novel are intended as a tongue-in-cheek criticism and lampooning of the medieval inter-Christian controversies and disputes. This in itself has some appeal, and it leads to some of the funnier situations and scenes in the book, but even here Eco manages to go overboard and overwork his points. Overall, "Baudolino" is an interesting exercise in adapting comedia dell'arte for the modern audience, but unfortunately it is too overwrought and overstylized for it to be either amusing or engrossingly thought provoking. It's still an interesting enough novel, and if you are into the medieval history then you'll find a lot of curious and fascinating material in it.