Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

A Tale of Adventure. Sceptre, 2007, 204p

Gentlemen of the Road cover

This was a delight. The story of two Jews With Swords (as Chabon’s working title had it) in the region of Khazaria on the Silk Road about 1,000 years ago it is a modern Boy’s Adventure Story. It is a long time since I read one of those but as far as my memory serves Chabon writes this much better than the Victorians did.

The two Jews are both a long way from home. Zelikman is from Regensburg in the Frankish Kingdom, and Amram is an African descendant of Solomon via the Queen of Sheba. Their scamming of other travellers by faking fights in order to profit from the betting thereon is interrupted by their encounter with Filaq, heir to a bekdom which has been usurped. Gentlemen of the Road is an admirably short novel but manages nevertheless to incorporate a lot of action.

The sentence structure can be convoluted, incorporating digressions and sub-clauses, but everything is in its place and contributes to the ongoing story. The inclusion (one per chapter) of full page illustrations of lines from the text gives the book the correct retro feel. How it relates to the work of such as R M Ballantyne and G A Henty I cannot say as my memory of those is hazy, but I doubt they had any sexual content as this does, briefly. What was unlikely in those is a woman having the agency one of the characters in this book exerts, indeed any sort of agency at all.

Chabon’s depiction of the times of the book accords with what I know of that era and place and extends it. I did wonder if the bek and kagan dual ruler set up in Khazaria might have been an inspiration to Robert Silverberg for the Coronal and Pontifex of his Majipoor novels and stories.

The end-papers contain a lovely map of Khazaria and the surrounding lands.

Gentlemen of the Road is a beautiful artefact, outside and in.

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