Baudolino is the twelve-year-old son of a peasant in twelfth-century Italy when he finds Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy and Roman Emperor, lost in the local pea-soup fog. Impressed by the young man's cleverness, Barbarossa quickly cuts a deal with Baudolino's father to take him back to his court. Baudolino quickly discovers that his knack for creative storytelling, not to say outright lying, gets him a lot further than boring old factual truth, which in fact almost always gets him in trouble.
Many years later, in 1204, Baudolino rescues a Byzantine official, Niketas, from the sack of Constantinople, and tells him what may or may not be the true story of his colorful life.
Baudolino openly admits to being an unreliable narrator, so we don't need to fret too much about what is believable and what isn't as he recounts his early days in Barbarasso's traveling court, his education in Paris and wild adventures with his friends there, and rising in influence at Frederick's court on his return. All through this time, he's dreaming of the ultimate great adventure, a journey to discover the kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian priest-king ruling somewhere far to the east.
When tragic and dangerous events finally give him and his friends good reason to be somewhere else, they set off to find Prester John, carrying with them twelve fake heads of John the Baptist, and a bowl that might be, but isn't, the Holy Grail. Along the way, they have magnificent adventures and encounter all the fantastic marvels of the mediaeval bestiary, of which unicorns and skiapods are almost the least. It's a tale of friendship, love, betrayal, marvels and wonders, and a map no one dwelling in the real world would recognize.
It does reflect but not dwell on the ways in which twelfth century Europe was a brasher and cruder time than our own.
It's all rollicking good fun. Well worth a read, or a listen.
I bought this book.