Pantheon. Feb. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781524747466. $26.95. F
By the end of the 30 Years’ War, Europe was devastated, with millions dead and those who remained starving. Against this backdrop, we meet Tyll Ulenspiegel, a freelance jester and vagabond, who serves as a tour guide of sorts through the ruins. Tyll witnesses his father’s execution, goes on the run with a girl from his village, joins a band of traveling entertainers, and cozies up to exiled King Frederick (the Winter King) and his wife, Elizabeth. Despite being a jester, Tyll is always the smartest person in the room, one step ahead of the hapless royals and government officials he meets on his journey. Much of the action may be hard for contemporary readers to believe, but Kehlmann (Measuring the World) does an excellent job of presenting the era’s horrors in a manner that is not sensationalistic, and to his credit manages to infuse some sly humor into events as Tyll’s way of coping.
VERDICT The nonlinear time line may puzzle, and readers unfamiliar with late 16th-century European politics may find many of the references confusing. In the end, this retelling of a famous German legend will work best for niche readers who appreciate a challenge, portrayals of feudal society reminiscent of Jim Crace’s excellent Harvest, or, Game of Thrones–style gore.

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