"The beserker ax bit flagstones, shedding handfuls of sparks." It's not often that you read such words from the pen of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. While some breeds of genre fiction are accommodated in the mainstream (detective thrillers, some sci-fi), it takes Michael Chabon to get a "swords-and-horses tale" into the window display of your average book megastore.
Followers of Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, will know that he is sincere about his interest in non-"literary" writing. He has edited two anthologies of genre stories, produced a comic-book series and written detective novels roughly in the hard-boiled and Victorian styles: respectively, The Yiddish Policemen's Union and The Final Solution.
Gentlemen of the Road, a "tale of adventure", was originally serialised in the New York Times magazine. It is set in 10th-century Khazaria, a Turkic kingdom between the Black and Caspian Seas that was notable for its wholesale conversion to Judaism. Straying into this perilous kingdom are Chabon's heroes, Amram, "a giant African", and owner of that axe, and Zelikman, "a slight, thin-shanked fellow, gloomy of countenance, white as tallow".
This pair of honourable scoundrels find themselves caught up with the son of the murdered Kharazian bek, or king. On their quest for revenge the unlikely trio encounters an army of Muslim mercenaries, a band of Frankish-Jewish traders and a fleet of marauding Kievan Rus' from the north.
Zelikman and Amram are both Jews, and this book is part of Chabon's ongoing exploration of Jewish identities, historical and possible. In fact, in his afterword he says that its working title was "Jews with Swords". Yet, at just 200 pages, and with all the twists, turns, battles and duels that the genre demands, that exploration doesn't run particularly deep.
If this makes the book seem more like a thesis than a romp, then that would be about half right. It features plenty of jokes, disguises, brothels and elephants, though rather less in the way of real, gutsy action than you might expect. Chabon is, though, a skilled and discerning writer in any genre, who can charm you with sentences such as this: "The agent only nodded his head and smiled a Radanite smile, which was not a smile at all but rather a promissory note to deliver one at some unspecified future date."
Swords-and-horses fans may feel short-changed, but this is an elegant, horizon-broadening curio for the literary set.
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