The story begins in 1204, with Crusaders plundering Constantinople. The hero, Baudolino, rescues Niketas, a historian and court official, and, while absconded safely in a tower, begins telling him the tale of his life. He was born a peasant, but, at fourteen, he fortuitously met a wealthy man who, charmed by his wit and intelligence, adopted him. The man is Fredrick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. Later, Baudolino is sent to university at Paris where he teams up with a band of colorful and charismatic characters. Spurred by the Legend of Prester John, the band sets out on a quest, filled with danger and romance, to discover Prester John’s mythic kingdom and find the Holy Grail.
The plot turns from story to legend to myth to fable and back again. Typically with Eco, there are digressions aplenty and a murder mystery to boot. The novel is a gem, sparkling with meticulous detail, historical as well as mythical. The journey motif, central to the story, actually becomes a journey within a journey, which Eco uses to keep the narrative tightly knit and bridges to a satisfying conclusion. This is a fantastic novel, with Eco at his best.