The story has been told from the eyes of Ibn Fadlan. Ibn Fadlan is sent on a mission to the King of Bulgars as an emissary by the Caliph of Baghdad. On his way he meets different tribes of Oguz Turks and the Northlanders (as he calls the people of Rus and Bulgars). He is both disgusted as well as intrigued by the ways of the Turks and the Northlanders.
The turks and northlanders are warring communities and are pretty much barbaric in their existance. So all the men are warriors and the females are sex tools. They are either at war or having sex with as many females as possible. All this repulses Ibn Fadlan but he carries on with his mission. Finally, he reaches a tribe headed by Buliwyf.
After a few days stay he prepares to leave, but is in for a rude shock as he is selected as the thirteenth member for a war mission by the tribe. It is then that he comes to know that in the tradition of the Northlanders, the number thirteen holds a lot of significance and has to be a foreigner and thus he is the obvious choice. Buliwyf's mission is in the land of King Rothgar where he has to defend the kingdom against the cannibalism of the Eaters of the Dead, the Wendols.
Ibn Fadlan, no warrior himself, is in a pitiable situation and is always on the fear for life. His fear increases as he sees the first instance of a Wendol attack where in a kid's head has been plucked off his body and other victims have been chewed and eaten at parts. Does Buliwyf and the team manage to defeat the Wendols? Does Ibn Fadlan survive the mission and complete his original mission?
The novel is set in the A.D. 922 during the heydays of the Caliph of Baghdad. Michael Crichton claims to have created the story from an epic poem Beowulf which according to Crichton was being considered to be published in a listing known as "The Great Bores". The story is told as an autobiography of Ibn Fadlan with comments from Michael Crichton appearing as footnotes to give his point of view of the various aspects of the episodes. I call it "his point of view" because it is exactly that as there is no way to validate the truth in these comments no more than the truth of the other experts that he disagrees with.
The way the life of the Turks and the Northlanders have been presented in this novel, they seem to be a quite advanced warring culture without the written word. The details of their house construction and weaponry and their excesses and partying makes it all look like a history book. I am a bit skeptical about the sexual details presented in this novel though. It might be a pigment of fiction to add more color to the novel. The reason of my opinion is that Ibn Fadlan might depict the sexual excesses of others, but not write deliberately about his own sexual exploits especially as it is against his religion about which he seems passionate. So even if he enjoyed himself, he would have kept silent about them.
The interesting aspect of the novel is the comparison of the lifes of Turks and Northlanders with the sophisticated and the refined ways of the muslims. Also the traditional views of Islam gets compared with the open and unrestrained life of the Northlanders. There are some interesting phrases to compare these, for e.g.: "Tell them we uncover it (body) in your presence so that you may see it and be abashed, but it is not to be attained. This is better than when you cover it up and yet it is attainable" referring to the near absence of adultery in the Turks whereas the devout muslims involved in it just like all sophisticated cultures.
The story has been told at a good pace. Crichton has done a good job of removing the redundant portions of the chiefs and tribes met by Ibn Fadlan and his group and these kinds of tedious information. On the flip side, Crichton's views seem quite biased on some of the topics. For e.g. he seems quite convinced that the Wendols must have be Neanderthal men though there is no historic proof ththey were alive around this period. What I am intrigued though is the fact that this novel is categorized under the fiction category, because the way it is presented it looks more like an history book than a fiction novel. Probably the epic poem Beowulf might have been just a fiction and hence this book is deemed a fiction.
About the author
Michael Crichton is top selling author who has authored such big sellers like Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Rising Sun, Disclosure and Congo. Some these have been made into blockbuster movies as well. Crichton is also credited as the creator of the ER series for television.
The book would have been better served without comments from Crichton as to his views of what things would have been. I would give this book a 3 star rating more for its historical heritage than for as a fiction novel.