Pros: Plenty of laughs.
Cons: Plenty of sad bits too.
For some time now, Michael Chabon's serialized novel, Gentlemen of the Road has been sitting on my Mt. TBR (To-Be-Read). And finally, I sat up one evening to take it in, and found myself both snickering and entertaining fond memories as a teenager reading the pulp novels of Fritz Leiber and Lin Carter and the like.
The time is sometime in the tenth century, and the place is the Caucasian mountains between what is now the former Soviet Union and Turkey. In a caravan stop, filled with merchants and other ne'er do wells of the time, a fight has broken out after some big African warrior with a battle axe fondly called "Defiler of your Mother" has thrown a knife at some lanky, skinny Frankish fellow with a blade that suspiciously sounds like an epee. Quickly bets are being made, and the fight spills out into the courtyard, where the little blond guy defeats the African with the big axe in a suitably gory way, much to the delight of the other patrons.
Folks, meet Amram, a former guard for the Byzantine Emperor and one bad-ass fighter, with a penchant for chess and a pragmatic look at life. And then there's his buddy Zelikman, the Frankish physician, who looks like a scrawny scarecrow and has a certain flexibility in his fighting style. These two Jews are the very best of friends and running a scam as they travel through the world, ducking their respective pasts, and trying to stay one step ahead of any problems they may have left behind them.
Soon after running the scam in the caravanserai, they meet up with a mahout, a keeper of elephants, and his young charge, Filaq, a handsome young man whose attitude and big mouth get him into constant trouble. Soon, much to the distress of both Amram and Zelikman, the old mahout is dead, and they've somehow have gotten their fate wrapped up into that of Filaq. All I can say is that nothing is as it seems, especially when Filaq announces that he's going to kill the usurper of the throne of the Kazars, and conquer the kingdom for himself...
I'll stop my synopsis of the story right there. There are plenty of twists and turns here, and I really don't want to spoil the read for anyone else who hasn't encountered this pair yet. All I will say is that you're in for philosophical thoughts, a bit of drug use, the horrors of war, armies on the march, and two scoundrels who use every trick they know to stay ahead of death.
And I had a great deal of fun reading this one too. Michael Chabon has a subversive wit to him that is full of mordant humour, and a certain charm to his writing. Even Zelikman with his perpetual state of gloom about him is still interesting enough to care about, and Amram with his attitude that fate will occur as it will, is still tough enough to scrap his way out of bad situations. If an author can keep me up till the wee hours of the morning reading, and not wanting to stop because I want to know what happens next, well, that's a good book for me.
I'd go so far as to say that it's likely that Mr. Chabon devoured those pulp stories just as much as I did when I was young, and he's learned all sorts of literary tricks to craft a story that will keep his reader hooked. Originally, this was serialized in the New York Times during 2007, which goes a long way to explain the choppy writing style at times. However, that to me was part of the charm of this one, as it recreated the feel of those classic pulps so well.
The pen-and-ink illustrations by Gianni de Conno also convey the story wonderfully well, the feel of them reminding me a lot of the classic hero tales by Howard Pyle. Each chapter has an illustration to it of some encounter in the story, and the detail is very evocative of the time and place.
It's a slender novel, not much more than two hundred pages long, and in addition to the narrative, there are a map of the kingdom of the Kazars, an afterword by the author on how the story came to be and the setting and characters that he used -- Jews with Swords was the original title that he intended to use -- along with some notes and suggestions for those who are curious about the kingdom of the Kazars and their remarkable history.
I had a grand time with this one, and for anyone who wants a rollicking swashbuckler of a story, you won't go wrong with this one. Happily, five stars overall, and a big thumbs up from me. Go revisit your adolescence with this one, and have a good time for a tale full of daring do, Vikings, rogues and justice served.
Gentlemen of the Road
2007; Del Rey/Ballantine Books