Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon
Del Rey

reviewed by Michael Lohr

Gentlemen of the Road

   With a working title like “Jews with Swords,” Pulitzer Prize winning literary mastermind Michael Chabon must have scarred the wits out his editors at Ballantine, the parent imprint of Del Ray. I can only imagine their shock when Chabon told them about his Dark Ages adventure novel featuring two swashbuckling heroes on a quest to save a prince/princess. The sheer pulp of the idea alone probably sent them into convulsions.

It’s a little miracle that someone actually had the foresight to let Michael Chabon continue with his Jews with Swords idea. What came about is perhaps one of the best novels he’s ever written, Gentleman of the Road. Full of intrigue, daring escapades, archaic language (his prose style is pure art at times) and nerve-racking twists and turns, this historical novel accomplishes something rarely experienced. It allows the reader to get lost along with the characters, to feel their sense of trepidation, circumspection and eventually relief as they fulfill their destiny, only, in the end, to return to the familiar and hit the road once more.

Gentleman of the Road is set in the 10th century Jewish Kingdom of Arran, along the Caspian Sea in what is now roughly Azerbaijan. The book follows the road journey of two unlikely antiheroes, an axe loving African Jew named Amram and a cutlass wielding, physician-assassin, Frankish Jew named Zelikman. These two wanderers find themselves among the Khazars, a mysterious Turkish people who embraced Judaism. Amram, who happens to carry one of the coolest named weapons of any adventurer in recent memory, a Viking axe named “Defiler of Your Mother” and Zelikman will stoop to various shades of chicanery to gain some gold coin. During one of their schemes they stumble across Filaq, a sailor-mouthed exiled prince (who is actually a princess) who is the rightful heir to the throne of a warlord Khazar king. They reluctantly agree to help the whelp and unwittingly set themselves on a harrowing road straddling the tenuous realm of life and death.

While not much in the way of written records survive from the kingdom of the Khazars, a kingdom that lasted four-hundred years. Chabon was able to research the writings of 10th century Spanish-Jewish physician and scholar, Hasdai ibn-Shaprut. Hasdai had a lengthy correspondence with Joseph, the King of the Khazars, and these letters still remain for scholars to study today. He also made use of Kevin Alan Brook’s The Jews of Khazaria and Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe. With Gentleman of the Road, Chabon managed to capture the essence of popular dime store novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, while also keeping true to his literary form and style. What comes through is an excellent novel of historical fiction.

Gentleman of the Road is full of marauding Vikings, spectacular sword fights, bittersweet romance, beautiful priestesses, rampaging elephants and more than a few corollary superlatives. What this all adds up to is that Gentleman of the Road is one fun novel to read. It would probably be too much to ask that Michael Chabon write a sequel so we can further follow the exploits of Amram and Zelikman. But we could only hope.