Now then my readers…it is time I feel to leave the world of the Imperium and the God-Emperor for a decent length of time. Those of you who have read my reviews prolifically will be aware that alongside enjoying science fiction and fantasy and the odd classic crime story here and there I have a fondness for history. Be it a discussion of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, Dan Carlin’s ‘Martian’ view of numerous topics in history or Paul French’s investigations of early twentieth century Chinese murder cases. All of those topics I’ve covered in the past are in some way discussions of or opinions on actual historical events. But today’s topic is slightly different.
Eaters Of The Dead by Michael Crichton– author of numerous famous books some of which have been adapted into films such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain –as well as the ER television series is a 1976 novel that is something of a what if story or alternative history. In the 10th century there was an Muslim traveller called Ahmad Ibn Fadlan most famous for his account of his travels (called a Risala) as part of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars. This was an historic state of Bulgar people which was in modern day Russia and has very minimal connection to modern day Bulgaria. Fadlan’s record is notable for containing a large section discussing an encounter with a tribe of Vikings and being a first-hand witness to a ship burial. It is commonly believed that Fadlan and his group encountered the Rus’ Vikings, progenitors of modern day Russia. This much is historically accurate albeit with some debate.
The basic conceit of Eaters Of The Dead is as follows: Instead of continuing on his originally assigned task, Ibn Fadlan somewhat against his will initially, is taken on a journey with the Rus’ as the thirteenth member of an expedition (to comply with the mandates of a soothsayer) to save another group of Vikings from the Wendol or ‘mist-monsters.’ Over the course of the book Crichton’s version of Fadlan describes numerous traditions of the Rus’ Vikings – as accurately as he could at the time with what was known by the early 1970s – and describes numerous battles with the Wendol.
From that description you may be able to divine Eaters’s other main inspiration: the classic epic poem Beowulf. The book is written as though the events of Beowulf are historical occurrences albeit somewhat reworked hence the changes to names and events with narration and ‘scientific commentary’ on a version of Ibn Fadlan’s manuscript with a blend of voices between Fadlan, the text’s ‘translators’ and the editor or narrator. A pseudo scientific tone is maintained through a series of occasional footnotes with references to factual and fictional sources. This includes in the bibliography – for no explicit reason I can discern – H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. (For those of you who’ve read the book can any of you tell me…WHY the Necronomicon is referenced…aside from just for the hell of it? This genuinely confuses me.)
I found the book a very entertaining listen. The idea of listening to a fictionalised annotated manuscript inspired by Fadlan’s travels and writing style was rather intriguing. Crichton manages to maintain his illusion with a few rather entertaining moments. As a result of the basic idea this book doesn’t really have characters in the traditional sense but Fadlan and some of his Viking companions are certainly interesting people to go on a journey with! I’m not going to claim this book is for everyone. It certainly isn’t. But if the concept intrigues my readers I certainly recommend it. I quite literally bought it on impulse during a sale on Audible and loved the entire thing!
The narration for the audiobook edition by Brilliance Audio – who also released the 25th anniversary audio edition of Jurassic Park – is performed by Simon Vance an EXTREMELY prolific and talented narrator who among his many other credits includes the Macmillan Audio edition of the original Dune and the famous and highly respected Sherlock Holmes pastiche Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye. Vance is wonderful in this book. He is expertly able to differentiate the voices for all the characters be it Fadlan himself, the various different editors and translators of the text, Herger – the closest thing Ibn Fadlan has to a friend or translator among the Vikings as he knows some basic Latin – or the various other figures. Vance also manages to approximate a voice for someone from the Caliph long enough as Ibn Fadlan that you can believe it for the sake of the story and doesn’t, unlike certain other narrators, massively over do it to the point of parody. Vance is honestly one of those narrators where his involvement in anything audio makes me at least consider it.
Interestingly as a small curio, the book was adapted in 1999 to a film project. One which is rather infamous for multiple reasons I won’t go into. However shortly after the release of the film version as well as a few other times consequently there are certain printings of this book which were released under the name The 13th Warrior rendering Eaters Of The Dead both the book’s main title and an alternative title depending on which version of the book you happen to own.
In conclusion if the description of this book in my review makes it seem interesting to you I highly recommend hunting down a copy. Especially the audio version I myself enjoyed. However if this book doesn’t sound like your cup of tea in the first place? It is not one I would consider taking a risk on if the topic, concept or name of the author doesn’t already appeal to you.
Now what shall I review next? Perhaps it is time once again to check in on the crew of the good ship Serenity? Who knows what we might find when we return to the ‘Verse.