Review of Gentlemen of the Road
Two con-men mercenaries, Zelikman and Amram, get caught up in the Khazar Empire’s revolution and attempt to come out alive if not more wealthy for their troubles.
While engaged in another grift, the two protagonists inadvertently become escorts to a deposed prince, Filaq, in his gambit to regain his throne in Atil, capital of the Jewish Khazar Empire in the Caucasus Mountains. Set roughly in the year 950, the African warrior Amram and his friend the Frankish renegade medic, Zelikman, become caught in a conflict where little is as it appears. The two men find different reasons to continue with their job even as they understand when they get in way over their heads as mercenaries.
On one level the novel works as amazing adventure tale freighted with the action, mystery, exotic locales, and thrilling fights one would expect from a pulp story by Robert E. Howard or the likes of which inspired the Indiana Jones series. A character like Conan would be right at home with the banditry and high action into which Amram and Zelikman stumble. In fact, the book is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, author of many heroic fantasy novels and creator of Elric and Stormbringer. It is clear what sort of lineage Chabon is trying to invoke.
As is usually the case with Chabon, though, he takes what could be a standard genre story and spins it into a literary adventure. As glimpses of the back stories of Zelikman and Amram are imparted, the reader comes to see the story as more than another action novel. The protagonists are humanized in a way that reveals they are lost, directionless men who, apart from one another, are alone in the world that has treated them harshly and left them with little hope for a better future. Their reasons for their mercenary behavior are explained as the novel continues.
The setting is interesting because it is simultaneously historical and fantastic. The Caucasus region is an out-of-the-way and poorly understood part of the world today. In the pre-Industrial era it was an economic and cultural crossroads constantly embattled with regional natives and encroaching powers such as the Byzantine Empire, Persia, the Mongols, and the Ottoman Empire.
The combination of this history with so many hands and the continued mystery of the region permit Chabon the perfect stage to play out this adventure in a kingdom certainly no less believable than the ones that actually existed there around that same time. The Jewish Khazar Empire and its people are as real as the Rus and their longships. In his final notes, Chabon explains about his research into the historical Khazars.
The Del Rey trade paperback edition contains some excellent material other than the text.
- Map of the Khazar Empire and areas of importance
- Afterword in which Michael Chabon explains his goals for the novel and its original title
- A Note on the Khazars of the author’s research on the topic
- Interior illustrations of scenes in the story
All of these little bonuses add to the overall story and provide incentive to purchase the novel since it contains more than just the text one expects to find in a paperback edition.
Chabon, Michael. Gentlemen of the Road. New York: Del Rey, 2008.
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© 2009 Seth Tomko