Gentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventure
By Michael Chabon; Read by Andre Braugher
Audible Download – Approx. 4 Hours 13 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: October 2007
Themes: / Adventure / Crime / Jewishness / War / Politics / Mercenaries / Con-men / Khazaria /
Gentlemen Of The Road was first published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine. Despite it’s sword and sorcery feel, it is not actually a Fantasy novel, but is instead a “swashbuckling adventure” set in an obscure, but real, historical setting. Its heroes, Amram and Zelikman, are an odd, but vaguely familiar, pair. Familiar in their companionable rivalry and clearly inspired by Fritz Leiber’s famed pair of characters: Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. But, instead of one being a short, urban thief and the other a hulking Northern barbarian, the two are instead the titular gentlemen of the road, wandering Jews, or as Chabon himself states in the audiobook’s afterword “Jews With Swords.” And that’s what was really important in this story; though each of these two Jews looks entirely unalike from the other, they are tied together by far flung tradition, common heritage and similar tales of woe. The larger of the pair is Amram, a swarthy Abyssinian with a penchant for shatranj and quite literally an axe to grind. The slighter and paler of the pair is Zelikman, a fair haired Frank, who far from being a member of the thieves guild is actually a doctor (he wields an “over-sized bloodletting lance as a rapier”). Together they are a neat pair of dark age sell-swords/con-men, working the taverns and inns of southern Eurasia. It is, all in all, one of the neatest set-ups for a book I’ve ever heard. And you couldn’t find a funner fictional premise for illustrating the Jewish diaspora in an adventure novel.
One evening (circa AD 950), a chance encounter at a roadside inn in the kingdom of Aran leads to a body-guard job. The job involves a journey to the neighboring khaganate of Khazaria. Along the way they meet many a fellow road traveler and have some less than polite encounters. Eventually, Amram and Zelikman (A & Z) find themselves fully entangled in a rebellion and plot aimed at restoring a displaced Khazar prince to the throne.
Narrator Andre Braugher is a television actor that I’ve admired since his portrayal of the unwaveringly professional detective Frank Pembelton on Homicide: Life on The Street. Braugher has a powerful voice that he uses to deliver Chabon’s ornately constructed descriptive scenes and dialogue. You can tell, with every sentence of Braugher’s delivery, that Chabon loves language. I thoroughly enjoyed the book after I got into it. But it wasn’t easy, I really had to shift gears. This is embellished storytelling, it feels both old-fashioned and unrepentantly ostentatious. It has very little of the usual fantasy stylings, it dumps any ordinary flat or prosaic description in favour of the deliberately lavish. Once I did get into it, I loved it. There’s a lot of detail to enjoy here. Chabon’s hulking Abyssinan, for instance, has a battle-axe. He gained it after combat with the Varangian Guard in Byzantium. A runic inscription on it roughly translates into “defiler of your mother.” Another writer would have done it another way – another writer wouldn’t have done it at all. This is what makes Chabon, his books and this novella in particular so special.
Sadly, the audiobook lacks the map and the 15 terrific black and white illustrations (by Gary Gianni ) found in the paperbook. Here is a peek at both:
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