Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure
Del Rey, 2007 (2007)
Read an Excerpt
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
aving camped in ruined caravanserai - typically sharing them with goats and their droppings - while traveling in the 70s from London to Kathmandu, I looked forward to reading Michael Chabon's
Gentlemen of the Road
, a novel that lived up to my expectations and more. The author himself calls it
A Tale of Adventure
whose initial title was
Jews with Swords
, and fittingly dedicates it to Michael Moorcock. The action is enhanced by Gary Gianni's fifteen excellent black and white illustrations.
he protagonists of this jaunty tale - a satirical history/fantasy romp reminiscent of James Branch Cabell's works (which I read and enjoyed in my youth) - are an odd couple of adventurers. Here's Amram, a giant African armed with an ax, with '
eyes womanly as a camel's
a shining pate
', and an '
air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road.
' And there's pale, gloomy, yellow-haired Frankish physician Zelikman, who's fond of his hat, is garbed in black, and carries for weapon '
a long, absurdly thin bodkin that might serve, in a pinch, to roast a couple of birds over an open fire, if they were not too plump.
n the middle of their latest scam, the companions encounter a one-eyed Persian, an '
old elephant trainer
' shepherding russet-haired Khazar stripling Filaq to the safety of his grandfather's fortress in Azerbaijan. All Filaq's family members in Atil were slaughtered or sold into slavery after a successful rebellion led by Buljan against the princeling's father. The latter was the
(war king) of the Khazars and was very fond of elephants (which have an important role in the story). After an assassin kills the mahout, our heroes take on the task of escorting Filaq to safety, hoping for a reward but hindered by the youth's obsession with returning to Atil and extracting revenge upon the usurper.
nfortunately, the bad guys reach the stronghold first. Then Filaq escapes custody, taking with him Amram's beloved half-Arabian horse Hillel. Unwilling to cut their losses - and influenced by tragedies in their own pasts - Amram and Zelikman are quickly embroiled in Filaq's story, which serves up a few surprises of its own, including an unwilling assassin named Hanukkah who joins them, grateful for Zelikman's medical attention. Journeying on, they learn that Buljan has invited Northmen to loot the southern Muhammadan cities of his kingdom. Soon, to the dismay of Zelikman - who believes that '
All the evil in the world derives from the actions of men acting in a mass against other masses of men
' - the
Brotherhood of the Elephant
rise in rebellion.
he friends are parted and reunited. And while these brilliant swindlers cope with betrayal and disaster - with out-of-the-box thinking, a plan that releases the sacred kagan from his long servitude, and the assistance of an enraged elephant - Filaq pulls off the biggest scam of them all. Michael Chabon tells us in his Afterword that, in writing
Gentlemen of the Road
, he has '
gone off in search of a little adventure.
' Fortunately for us, he has shared the fun, wit and irony with his legion of readers.
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