Gentlemen of the Road: Swashbuckling historical fiction

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Gentlemen of the Road Michael Chabon audiobook reviewGentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (2007) is a swashbuckling historical fiction about a pair of Jewish vagabonds in 10th century Khazaria. Amran is a large Abyssinian, while Zelikman is a somber doctor who explains that he does not save the lives of his patients — he only “prolongs their futility.” We meet our heroes in the midst of a con game and the two rogues soon find themselves in the middle of a royal plot.

Though Gentlemen of the Road is a pretty straightforward historical fiction — there are no sorcerers — there is still plenty here for fantasy fans to enjoy. Chabon’s heroes, for example, strongly recall Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. And perhaps only Joe Abercrombie derives more joy from describing his heroes’ broad lats and deadly weapons. Zelikman fights with a lancet, while Amran carries a luxurious, ornate, and massive axe whose name roughly translates to “mother defiler.” He’s a pretty bad dude.

The novel was originally published in serial form, which should perhaps be taken into account if reading the story in one sitting. The plot did not really hook me, and the rich, even indulgent, prose seemed to be more important than the action. Readers don’t even have to turn the first page to get a sense of what kind of writing they’re in for – a few chapter titles are more than sufficient. Here:

  • On Discord Arising From the Excessive Love of a Hat
  • On Some Peculiarities in the Trading Practices of Northmen
  • On the Seizing of a Low Moment

At times, I wondered if Chabon had deliberately chosen a form that would allow him to just write with style and panache — damn all other expectations. In fact, I often suspected while reading this novel that Chabon wanted a form that would allow him the freedom to just have fun at his desk. In his afterword, Chabon shares that the original title was “Jews With Swords.”

Gentlemen of the Road is a neat little book, but I cannot recommend without reservation. I enjoyed the style, liked Amran, and sympathized with Zelikman, but I am not sure this novel stands up to the rest of Chabon’s work. As it appears to be a diversion from the rest of Chabon’s output, it is hard to gauge whether his fans will enjoy Gentlemen of the Road. (If I were a betting man, I’d expect this novel to divide his fans.) Ultimately, even if we ignore all of that, I’m left wondering what it means if the author’s afterword is more interesting than the novel?

I listened to Random House Audio’s production of Gentlemen of the Road, which was read by Andre Braugher. Braugher has a deep and sonorous voice that is a pleasure to listen to. I sometimes felt that his reading took away from the novel’s humor, but I would otherwise listen to him again.

Published in 2007. Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, sprang from an early passion for the derring-do and larger-than-life heroes of classic comic books. Now, once more mining the rich past, Chabon summons the rollicking spirit of legendary adventures–from The Arabian Nights to Alexandre Dumas to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories–in a wonderful new novel brimming with breathless action, raucous humor, cliff-hanging suspense, and a cast of colorful characters worthy of Scheherazade’s most tantalizing tales. They’re an odd pair, to be sure: pale, rail-thin, black-clad Zelikman, a moody, itinerant physician fond of jaunty headgear, and ex-soldier Amram, a gray-haired giant of a man as quick with a razor-tongued witticism as he is with a sharpened battle-ax. Brothers under the skin, comrades in arms, they make their rootless way through the Caucasus Mountains, circa A.D. 950, living as they please and surviving however they can–as blades and thieves for hire and as practiced bamboozlers, cheerfully separating the gullible from their money. No strangers to tight scrapes and close shaves, they’ve left many a fist shaking in their dust, tasted their share of enemy steel, and made good any number of hasty exits under hostile circumstances. None of which has necessarily prepared them to be dragooned into service as escorts and defenders to a prince of the Khazar Empire. Usurped by his brutal uncle, the callow and decidedly ill-tempered young royal burns to reclaim his rightful throne. But doing so will demand wicked cunning, outrageous daring, and foolhardy bravado . . . not to mention an army. Zelikman and Amram can at least supply the former. But are these gentlemen of the road prepared to become generals in a full-scale revolution? The only certainty is that getting there–along a path paved with warriors and whores, evil emperors and extraordinary elephants, secrets, swordplay, and such stuff as the grandest adventures are made of–will be much more than half the fun.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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One comment

  1. I completely enjoyed this book, and I agree with you that Chabon seemed more interested in having fun than anything else. Certain twists in the plot were obvious from very early on, but I still had a great time… and I loved the bit in the afterword about “Jews with Swords.” (And then, later “Jews with Books.”)

    I agree with you that many of Chabon’s fans will find the book too slight.

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