As its subtitle suggests, the novel presents itself as if it were a translation of an actual medieval text that preserves details of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's journeys amongst "the Northmen," which is to say, the Vikings. These Vikings kidnap him while he is part of an embassy between the Caliph of Baghdad and the king of the Bulgars and it's this event that provides the frame for most of the novel. Crichton carefully maintains the pose that all he is doing is presenting a real historical text by providing footnotes and occasional editorial commentary to explain details missing from the original source material. In addition, Eaters of the Dead doesn't read like a contemporary novel; it's much more akin to a classical or medieval travelog, like The Histories of Herodotus or The Travels of Marco Polo. There is a narrative in the novel, but it's a meandering one that spends a lot of time discussing the customs of the alien peoples Ibn Fadlan meets on his journeys.
Of course, Crichton's ruse is helped by the fact that there really was an Ahmad ibn Fadlan and he did journey far north of his homeland, though not as far as he is depicted as having done in the novel. Likewise -- and this is where the novel takes a turn into pulp fantasy -- the heroic quest on which Ibn Fadlan finds himself is nowhere to be found in recorded history. While he is among the Vikings, their leader Buliwyf learns that an ancient foe has reappeared and threatens his father's kingdom. Furthermore, an oracle tells Buliwyf what must be done.
What follows after this is the true story of Eaters of the Dead and, as I said, it's an enjoyable one, at least I found it so. Without spoiling the novel, I'll say only that what Crichton offers up is a retelling of a classic fantasy story of Western literature but disguised and rooted in history. Naturally, there are a lot of flaws in his effort, not least being that the story classic story on which Eaters of the Dead is based was likely written before the events of the novel take place, though there is enough scholarly disagreement about it that Crichton can make his case nonetheless. Regardless of its real world accuracy, it's a fun book and one that could easily inspire plenty of roleplaying adventures.Then into the hall entered the old crone called the angel of death, and she sat beside Buliwyf. From a hide bag she withdrew some bones -- whether human or animal I do not know -- and these bones she cast upon the ground, speaking low utterances, and she passed her hand over them.
The bones were gathered up, and cast again, and the process repeated with more incantations. Now again was the casting done, and finally she spoke to Buliwyf.
I asked the interpreter the meaning of her speech, but he did not attend me.
Then Buliwyf stood and raised his cup of strong drink, and called to the assembled earls and warriors, making a speech of some good length. One by one, several warriors stood at their places to face him. Not all stood; I counted eleven, and Buliwyf pronounced himself satisfied with this.
Now also I saw that Thorkel appeared much pleased by the proceedings and assumed a more kingly bearing, while Buliwyf paid him no heed, or showed any hatred of him, or even any interest, although they were formerly enemies a few minutes past.
Then the angel of death, this same crone, pointed to me and made some utterance, and then she departed the hall. Now at last my interpreter spoke, and he said: "Buliwyf is called by the gods to leave this place and swiftly, putting behind him all his cares and concerns, to act as a hero to repel the menace of the North. This is fitting, and he must also take eleven warriors with him. And so, also, must he take you."
I said that I was on a mission to the Bulgars, and must follow the instructions of my Caliph, with no delay.
"The angel of death has spoken," my interpreter said. "The party of Buliwyf must be thirteen, and of these one must be no Northman, and so you shall be the thirteenth."
I protested I was not a warrior. Verily I made all the excuses and pleadings that I could imagine might have effect upon this rude company of beings. I demanded that the interpreter convey my words to Buliwyf, and yet he turned away and left the hall, saying this last speech: "Prepare yourself as you think best. You shall leave on the morning light."