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Chabon, Michael - Gentlemen of the Road

In the darkest depths of the Middle Ages - ca. 950 C.E. - two extremely unlike adversaries clash violently in a caravansery. One is a skeletally gangly Western European, young, blond, and glum; the other is a sturdily built African, middle-aged, very dark, and worldly wise. In the aftermath of this confrontation, the two companions - for that is what they are - gain a potentially lucrative commission: deliver the heir of a disputed kingdom to his sorrowing family. But the youth in question has no intention of cooperating, and assassins paid by the winning side of this monarchial dispute are on his trail. Soon gloomy Zelikman and sardonic Amram are neck-deep in the politics of Khazaria, the mysterious Black Sea kingdom whose ruler converted all his people to Judaism with the aim of avoiding political entanglements with the Christians of Europe on one side and the emerging Islamic empire on the other.

Your mileage may vary on this book. A good deal of it is not terribly original, and the prose can wax extremely purple. Almost all the characters are male. Grisly things happen. And the ending is not very satisfying.

I loved it anyway. Reading it reminded me of my teen enjoyment of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I seemed to slip into the overwrought prose and manly camaraderie as though it were a well-broken-in pair of shoes: it was comfy, and it took me where I wanted to go. I mentioned this to my friend Kat, and she shrugged and said "Sometimes, familiarity breeds contentment."

One last factor in its favor (for me, anyway): in the afterword, which I also enjoyed, Chabon revealed that his own working title for this was "Jews with Swords" - for reasons that will become obvious by the end of the first chapter. Dude! I mean - Jews! With swords!

 

Gentlemen of the Road (review)

When you get down to it, almost every character that counts as anything other than a villain - and even some of the villains - is a Jew. And this is a fantastical novel, even though there isn't any real magic in it. It's hard to believe how awesome this feels to me. And this is a genre setting that I enjoy and easily inhabit - to find Jewish people in it is wonderful. Just to give you another example of why I'm feeling this way: when the Young Lady was in religious school, I volunteered at the synagogue school library. There was a moderate-sized collection of YA fiction books in it. Almost all of them were either (a) books about the Holocaust, (b) books about some other sad period in Jewish history, or (c) modern "problem" books about kids facing prejudice or trying to integrate some difficult aspect of their religion into "normal" modern U.S. pre-adolescent /adolescent life. In that setting, E.L. Koenigberg's unabashedly humorous About the B'nai Bagels (about a boy and his Little League team during his Bar Mitzvah year) shone unbelievably brightly. And this book? To me, at this moment, it's a veritable supernova.

Women are under-represented in this story. I admit it. It's that kind of book. What happens to Filaq is sad and rotten - and all too believable. What's important to me is that she doesn't let it stop her in her crazy quest, and she doesn't become unhinged from her experiences, and either go on a crazy streak of vengeance or beak down entirely. And I like that she and Zelikman are equals in their melancholy little encounter at the end. She doesn't ask him to stay. He can't help her any farther - at that point, it's up to her and God.

And I have to say I like the crazy purple prose. Chabon is brilliant at it.

Finally, the afterword is wonderful!

•  sovay mentions this book briefly

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
rachelmanija
Mar. 13th, 2008 03:41 am (UTC)
I don't care what's wrong with it, it had me at "Jews With Swords."
smillaraaq
Mar. 13th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
Reading it reminded me of my teen enjoyment of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

Right, I'm sold already... *toddles off to Ye Olde Bulging Wishlist*
chomiji
Mar. 17th, 2008 03:08 am (UTC)

The only problem is, it just came out in hardback, so it's probably not available in an inexpensive edition yet. But maybe the hardbacks are showing up on places like Bookmooch as people for whom it just wasn't quite right get rid of theirs.

It's an awfully pretty piece of bookbinding: maps on the endpapers, page ornamentation right to the bleed edge on the chapter title pages, old-style line illustrations with captions (and a listing in the front).

0nolicious
Mar. 17th, 2008 06:04 am (UTC)
I wishlist EVERYTHING, no matter how unlikely, because sometimes you get lucky. I got something like 98% of the Sano Ichiro mystery series in hardcover, all from the same person who was trying to clear up space on their bookshelves...although that still doesn't beat the amazing coup of a Saiyuki artbook sent all the way from Tahiti. ;)
smillaraaq
Mar. 13th, 2008 07:17 am (UTC)
And this is a genre setting that I enjoy and easily inhabit - to find Jewish people in it is wonderful. Just to give you another example of why I'm feeling this way: when the Young Lady was in religious school, I volunteered at the synagogue school library. There was a moderate-sized collection of YA fiction books in it. Almost all of them were either (a) books about the Holocaust, (b) books about some other sad period in Jewish history, or (c) modern "problem" books about kids facing prejudice or trying to integrate some difficult aspect of their religion into "normal" modern U.S. pre-adolescent /adolescent life.

Oh, do I ever hear you on that. As a child in a state that didn't have a terribly large Indian population, the native stuff I'd find on the children's and YA library shelves tended to fall into similar categories:

(1) Broad-historical-overview non-fiction of the Reader's Digest/Time-Life/National Geographic sort. Shiny and well-illustrated but nothing in depth and very very focused on the past, with only the most token nod in maybe the last chapter to Indians living in the day-to-day modern world.

(2) Recently-written historical stories, generally written by white people and painfully earnest and well-meaning, and chock-full-of-"positive"-stereotypes. For the younger grade levels it was generally stuff about being In Touch With Nature, for the older grades it was typically tragic stuff about things like the Trail of Tears or Chief Joseph or boarding schools.

(3) Vintage pioneer stories, with Indians shown as either the scary savage bogeyman enemies, or pathetic primitive savages. Do I even need to mention these were all written by white people?

(4) Problem novels with the native kid struggling with prejudice, poverty, not fitting in, etc. -- these were usually the only ones you might find with a modern-day setting. Yet again they tended to be painfully earnest, stereotyped in well-meaning but ignorant ways, and written by white people.

So finding something like Andre Norton's The Sioux Spaceman was a huge thrill -- in retrospect it wasn't particularly *good*, but as a youngster who was eating up SF like candy, it was just so incredible to find something in the genre I loved, rather than one of the dreary books the grownups kept shoving at me, with ZOMG THE FUTURE HAS INDIANS! IN SPACE!

And for all the time that's elapsed since then, increased awareness of why so many of the books I found as a child were so iffy, etc., that giddy book-loving child has never entirely vanished. On the one hand, the critical self-aware side of my mind can pick apart the ways in which the well-meaning but anvilly Indian character in the Cat books is problematic...but at the same time, that inner child is still squeeing madly over INDIANS! IN SPACE!

So huzzah for finding JEWS! WITH SWORDS! to provide you with that sort of squee. :)
telophase
Mar. 13th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
(hijacking post to notify both of you at once)

Just sent you an invite for the conbini_ooc comm, which I created in a burst of almost-enthusiasm over the Irregulars RPG.
bad_mushroom
Mar. 13th, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC)
Have you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? It's brilliant brilliant brilliant amazing.
chomiji
Mar. 17th, 2008 03:09 am (UTC)

Yes, thank you, a while ago - as it's another Jew-y book, we had it at the aforementioned library.

I did like it, but I like this one better, even though it's not as high-class a piece of literature!

bad_mushroom
Mar. 17th, 2008 07:07 pm (UTC)
Huh, then I guess I'll have to read this one, since I absolutely fell in love with Joe/The Escapist/Chabon in Kavalier and Clay.
chomiji
Mar. 18th, 2008 09:16 pm (UTC)

Well, this is a very different book. He comments as much in the afterword - that his previous books are very much something you'd expect of a modern, urban writer who scribes stuff for the New Yorker. This is very much a pastiche of things like the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories and other adventurous stuff aimed at high school boys in the 1950s and 1960s - minus the racist, sexist attitudes of the time, and beautifully (although very lushly) written.

Here's the opening, excerpted ... check and see whether this is the type of thing you'd like.

bad_mushroom
Mar. 18th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
Ah, I just want to live in his prose. Lush is the way I like it, baby.
chomiji
Mar. 20th, 2008 03:54 pm (UTC)

Me too!

(And only vaguely related to that - you might want to dig up British naturalist Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals, which is both very funny and very lush in its writing.)

vierran45
Mar. 13th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
I thought this book was a fun, light read in the good old adventure tale sense. I completely understand your excitement over finding a fun book with "jews with swords", even though I'm not a Jew myself.

I also second the recommendation for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which is really an amazingly good book.

Edited at 2008-03-13 09:49 pm (UTC)
chomiji
Mar. 17th, 2008 03:10 am (UTC)

I've read Kavalier and Clay, and I did like it, but this one was more fun!

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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